When William Gunn sought medical care for his pit bull-Labrador retriever mix Smokey on a Sunday morning, one of her front paws was bleeding uncontrollably. The family's regular veterinarian was closed that day, and he didn't know where else to go, so he paged through the phone book and wound up at the Catonsville practice of Badr Oweis.
Gunn, a city wastewater supervisor who lives in Poppleton, told the vet that he had been walking Smokey when she cut the paw, probably on glass. He thought stitches might take about 30 minutes, but Oweis told him she would likely need anesthesia and it might take a while.
More than seven hours later, the 1-year-old dog left the vet's office with an ovariohysterectomy (spaying), no pain medication and an infection that would swell to the size of a tennis ball and spike a temperature of 104.2 degrees. Her paw had been wrapped in padding and masking tape. Oweis handed Gunn a $588 bill.
"I went to church and asked people to pray for my dog," recalled Gunn's wife, Yvonne, a retired Baltimore high school math teacher. "She was dying; I was devastated."
Smokey survived, but the Gunns' experience illustrates the problems Marylanders can face in seeking care for a pet. The Gunns complained to the state Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners about Oweis, and their case was one of three in 2010 and 2011 that resulted in a series of fines and suspensions against him. Though Oweis has disputed the allegations and said Gunn authorized the surgery, his license remains suspended.
Since late 2007, the state board has suspended the licenses of seven veterinarians and revoked one vet's license. In two cases, the board found that vets used their position to access prescription drugs. In other cases, the board said vets provided inadequate care, failed to conduct proper tests or kept poor records.
The board investigates an average of 87 complaints a year, in addition to random, unannounced checks at least once every two years of all practices and hospitals, according to executive director Laura C. Downes. In nearly two-thirds of the cases, the board takes action — ranging from a letter of reprimand to a license revocation, she said.
Although Maryland's board is considered to be relatively assertive, experts say that across the country, penalties are low and often inadequate. Some animal-rights advocates say the laws providing remedies when a pet has been harmed or mistreated by a veterinarian are outdated in most states and fail to recognize that, to many, a pet is truly a part of the family.
"This is a classic example of the law being decades behind the reality in society," said Scott Heiser, senior attorney and director of the criminal justice program at the California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund. "Views have changed markedly over the years. ... What's the value of the 5-year-old mutt that you got from the pound that comforts your children during a thunder and lightning storm?"
The Gunns want state regulators to step up efforts to protect pets and their owners. William Gunn said the complaint process was slow — Oweis' discipline came more than two years after the 2008 visit — and the outcome lenient.
"A person in the medical field that takes care of animals, you would think that they are beyond reproach," he said.
Oweis defended his medical treatment to the state board, testifying that Smokey was aggressive and contending that Gunn authorized him to spay her. He said he gave the dog a tranquilizer before the surgery that also controlled pain, and testified that pain medication after a dog is spayed is not necessary.
After conducting an investigation and hearing testimony, the board determined that Oweis spayed Smokey without her owners' permission, performed major surgery without follow-up pain medication and failed to properly record the treatment.
Oweis said in an interview that he did not want to discuss the situation for this article. He wants to practice again, but board officials said he is not in compliance with the orders against him and has not paid his civil penalties or attended required education sessions.
Maryland's oversight efforts
Thomas Armitage, president of the Maryland Veterinary Medical Association and a practitioner for 31 years, said vets are very concerned about animal safety and humane treatment, and take an oath to that effect when they enter the field.
Those ethics are the center of their professional careers, he said.
When something goes wrong, discipline falls to the Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, which is made up of five veterinarians and two consumer advocates appointed by the governor.
Based in the Department of Agriculture headquarters in Annapolis, the board and its three inspectors are charged with overseeing the state's more than 2,500 veterinarians, who work in roughly 500 practices or in government, research or the military. Board members receive $100 a month and mileage reimbursement; the board president receives $150 a month.
"I think the consumer has significant weapons in their arsenal if they are unhappy with what their veterinarian has done," said board president Chris H. Runde, a general practitioner with a hospital in St. Mary's County.
The board can issue fines of up to $5,000 for a first offense, and up to $10,000 for subsequent offenses, in addition to suspending or revoking licenses. The maximum fine for second offenses was doubled about two years ago after the board lobbied the legislature, Runde said.
Among the cases of veterinarians whose licenses were suspended or revoked were:
•Nave S. Dhillon, whose license was suspended for two weeks in January 2011 for providing inadequate care to a cat, the state board said. The pet died a day after Dhillon, based in Prince George's County, released it. He was fined $5,000 and ordered to a year of probation and six hours of education in record-keeping. Dhillon, according to a consent agreement, denied liability in the matter but acknowledged that the board had enough evidence to find him in violation of state regulations. He did not return messages seeking comment for this article.
•Sarah E. Sedriks-Callaway, whose license was suspended in May 2011 for two weeks. She wrote pet prescriptions for Xanax, Ritalin and Oxycodone that were intended for use by owners while working at a practices in Woodstock and Severna Park, according to the board. She was fined $1,000, put on probation for 12 months and ordered to take 12 hours of classes in ethics and record-keeping. Sedriks-Callaway did not file a timely response to the board's order and waived her right to a hearing; she also did not return a message seeking comment.
•James D. Nolte, whose license was suspended twice in 2009 and again in August 2011. The most recent suspension for the Wicomico County vet stemmed from a violation of professional conduct, judgment and practice standards, failure to follow protocol for controlled substances, and inadequate record-keeping, the board said. In the 2009 cases, Nolte did not conduct diagnostic evaluations and failed to properly close the surgical incision in a dog's abdomen, among related violations. Discipline has included at least $4,000 in fines, continuing education and probation. In documents from the board, Nolte denied liability but signed consent agreements in the 2009 cases. A woman who answered the phone at his practice said Nolte declined to comment.
•Gary W. Dehne's license was revoked in May 2009, after he was paid $344 by Bernadette Aukward of Silver Spring for blood tests on her cat, Spirit, but never gave her the results. Aukward, 79, said she had to put Spirit down about a month after Dehne did the blood tests. Spirit was diabetic and wasn't getting any better, she said. The bills were piling up, and she couldn't afford to pay them.
"I think if I had been able to get better care, then I would have been all right," she said. Spirit had meant "just about everything" to her, Aukward said, adding, "She was such comfort to me, such comfort."
The retired lab technician said her niece found the black cat starving at a trailer park and brought the frightened animal to her to nurse her back to health.. "All I know is, I would put the food out at night, and she would come from somewhere and ... eat; I didn't see her for the first month," Aukward said.
The cat was about 7 years old when Aukward had her euthanized.
Aukward said her intention was never for Dehne, who practiced primarily in Chevy Chase and Bethesda, to be severely disciplined. She had been happy with his previous treatment of Spirit, but she said something had changed on his last visit, and she was concerned.
Aukward filed a complaint with the board in October 2007, and in May 2009, the board revoked his license after repeated attempts to reach him.
Dehne did not return messages left at a practice in Washington, D.C.
In disciplinary cases, the board's actions are guided by state law and weighed according to the severity of an incident, the vet's disciplinary history and consistency among cases. The board typically imposes only half of the assessed suspension and sometimes a portion of the financial penalty — withholding the rest during a probationary period. If the veterinarian violates the conditions of probation, the remainder of the penalty can be imposed.
For instance, Oweis was fined $9,000 but had to immediately pay only $1,500. When his suspension ends, Oweis, like any other vet who has not been current on registration for more than a year, must submit to a reinstatement process through the board.
Runde said that making only portions of a fine or suspension effective immediately is a strategic tool, designed to force the doctors to comply with the law. "That means there is something hung over his head," he said.
"Our real mission is to protect the public from bad medicine" Runde said. The board can accomplish that by bringing veterinarians into compliance — not necessarily by punishing them, he said. Some bad practices are a result of mistakes, and to correct them, the board can help educate the veterinarians, he said.
"Let's improve their skills so they can be a better veterinarian and everyone wins," Runde said.
Runde contends that pet owners have ample opportunities for recourse. He noted that Maryland has animal cruelty laws — the board collaborates with prosecutors to enforce them when necessary — and a pet owner can file a civil law suit.
Corey Rosier was unhappy with the board's complaint process, though. He and Hannah Berryhill, former Catonsville residents, complained to the board after they brought their puppy, Roxie, to Oweis' practice for treatment of a cat scratch on the dog's eye in December 2008.
Two days after they dropped off the border collie-shepherd mix, Oweis demanded that the couple slide a $360 payment under the door before he'd let them see Roxie or give them an update on her condition, according to an order the board issued in November 2010.
Rosier said the state of Oweis' clinic — hedge clippers, rusted surgical implements and uncapped syringes scattered about — should have been a warning to the couple when they rushed to his practice on that Saturday afternoon. They said they didn't understand that Oweis would be performing surgery.
In board documents, Oweis defended his treatment of Roxie, saying he was concerned about Rosier and Berryhill not paying him and was afraid Rosier would start a fight. Oweis testified that he had explained to the couple that he would be performing surgery on the dog's eye.
In Roxie's case, the board found that Oweis acted unprofessionally and failed to keep adequate records. Oweis also was fined for having a cluttered and dirty clinic; the items that Rosier saw strewn about were detailed in a separate court order.
Rosier, who now lives in Columbia, believes pet owners have limited recourse available when their pet is harmed.
"I guess people think that because it's a dog, it's no big deal," he said. "There needs to be more penalties and swifter action. The only thing we could do was go to the board. We felt like nothing came of it."
Runde, president of the state board, said he understands the frustration of the pet owners who used Oweis' services and their perception that the state did not act aggressively enough.
"I am sorry they are disappointed," Runde said. "We're very concerned about how they feel about the job the board does."
Penalties low nationally
Nationwide, penalties are low and often inadequate, said James F. Wilson, a Pennsylvania-based expert on veterinary law and ethics who has served as a consultant to the Maryland board.
"I don't think the boards put the teeth where they should," said Wilson, who has degrees from Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine and UCLA's School of Law. "I think the boards ought to be more assertive. The customer needs to feel more confident."
For example, the law often treats pets like property, no different from a car or an armchair, Wilson said. But to allow animals to be treated more like a family member will take changes in the law, he said, and the legislative process is slow and influenced by special-interest groups.
Maryland's board is assertive relative to others, said Wilson, who teaches at about 20 veterinary schools across the country every year and has written textbooks on veterinary law and ethics. He also ranks Maryland as a leader in expanding remedies available to pet owners and calls the state's board innovative.
Maryland has another advantage over other states, he said. In October 2005, the state passed a law that allows pet owners to sue for up $7,500 for the death or injury of a pet. The law allows a pet owner to collect damages in excess of a pet's market or replacement value.
"Maryland is a leader in the United States, and other states are looking at this," Wilson said.
In all states, pet owners can sue those who harm their animals, but damages are often limited to market value, which for a mixed breed would be about $300 to $500, Wilson said.
However, some states, including Massachusetts and California, allow courts to assign sentimental value to pets, Wilson said. The amounts that courts have allowed for such damages have reached as high as $30,000 in a 2004 California case.
Heiser, the attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said the laws are in transition, but increased legal protections have been hampered in the past by the lobbying influence of veterinarians' associations.
That dynamic is shifting as pet owners become a more powerful constituency, Heiser said. For instance, 63 percent of all U.S. households own a pet, up from 56 percent in 1988. Spending on those pets topped $48 billion in 2011, he said.
Overall, the Animal Legal Defense Fund ranks Maryland 36th among states and territories for the strength and comprehensiveness of animal protection laws, including cases of abuse, neglect and abandonment. Maryland's ranking rose last year after a new law allowed animals to be included in domestic-violence protective orders, which means a judge can award custody of the family pet and block an abusive partner from access.
The way to advance the laws is for pet owners to actively push for change, Heiser said. "My advice is: 'Don't accept the status quo.'"
Runde said the state board regularly advocates for strengthening consumer protections.
For instance, the board pushed for legislation boosting potential fines for repeat misconduct. It also pushed for the 2009 law that allowed it to increase the annual continuing education requirement from 12 to 18 hours.
"Our mission is to protect the public, period," Runde said. "At the end of the day we're always looking at new ways to do that."
twitter.com/yvonnewengerCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun