San Francisco

Pet Owners Frustrated With Pet Hospital, Claim Ineffective Treatment and Massive Bills

When Murat Karaca’s cat, Einstein, had breathing problems, his local vet suspected a tumor in his trachea. There was only one place the Oakland pet owner wanted to go.

"I said, 'No way, we’re going to UC Davis,'" said Karaca. "They have such a good reputation."

Karaca was relieved when the veterinarians at Davis didn’t find a tumor. But he says they also didn’t find much else, despite tests, blood work and procedures.

"They do test again and again," said Karaca. "And we always said, 'What’s the problem?' And they said, 'We don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know.'"

By the ninth day, Karaca’s bill was $17,000, most of which he had approved because, he said, Davis kept giving him hope. But he still had no answers. And Einstein was still sick. Karaca feels like Davis was using his cat to experiment.

"Like a guinea pig," Karaca said. 

Karaca says Davis performed an unsuccessful surgery and asked for another $8,000 to continue treatment.

"The minute the money flow stopped, they stopped communication," said Karaca. "We didn’t know if he was alive or dead. They never called us. This was the most horrible torture I ever had in my life."

Karaca says Einstein was ultimately euthanized.

"Anger," said Karaca. "Just anger. Enormous anger."

Chris from San Francisco took his bulldog, Kramer, to Davis after a local vet diagnosed Kramer with cancer.

Chris and his personal vet suspected one type of cancer, one more common in bulldogs, but Davis treated Kramer for a different type.

"It was always very evasive dealing with them," said Chris. "And very frustrating. Because they wouldn’t listen to me."

Chris says he ignored his instincts and followed Davis’ advice and the treatment plan based on Davis’ diagnosis. Chris said Kramer’s health never got better. Within weeks, Kramer died, following a splenectomy performed by Chris’ personal vet, a surgery Chris felt should have been done by Davis right away.

A necropsy, an autopsy for animals, conducted by an independent lab hired by Chris,  confirmed Chris’ hunch: Kramer had the cancer he’d suspected.

"I knew it all along," said Chris. "That that was it."

Chris thinks Kramer may have lived longer if the diagnosis at Davis had been different.

"They feel like since they’re number one, 'Who’s this guy questioning us? He’s not a vet, he doesn’t have a medical degree,'" said Chris. "That’s the wrong attitude to have."

We heard from other pet owners who shared similar experiences -- tests, few answers and what they believe was misguided treatment.

Suzanne Valente of Pacifica wasn’t happy with Davis’ treatment of her dog Sally’s brain tumor back in 2002. After leaving Davis, Valente said Sally’s health declined, and she had to put her to sleep.

And Valente was also shocked by her final bill of $17,000, double what she’d authorized.

"The worst part of it was here’s our bill for $17,000, which is much more than we expected, and then on top of that, we got a death sentence," said Valente. "We didn’t get any benefit from all of this."

Valente disputed Davis’ bill with her credit card company and eventually won. But Davis later sued her for not paying the bill. A court found Davis’ treatment of Sally appropriate. But it also said Valente had the right to speak to a doctor first if the charges were going to substantially exceed the $8,500 quote. So it said Valente was only on the hook for the $8,500, not $17,000.

Davis’ vet hospital has a long reputation of outstanding care. It’s part of Davis’ renowned veterinary school, which is ranked number one in the country and in the world.

We asked for an interview with the chief veterinary medical officer at Davis, but she declined. In a statement, she said she couldn’t discuss the pet owners in our story, due to client confidentiality. But she said Davis treats more than 41,000 small animals like Einstein, Kramer and Sally every year, and she responds to less than 20 written complaints per year.

Pet owners typically file complaints against vets with the California Veterinary Medical Board. Its job is to investigate complaints.

"In terms of any care and treatment that’s provided to a pet, it should be medically necessary," said Annemarie Del Mugnaio of the board.

The board isn’t commenting on these specific cases. But it points out that treatment should be done to extend a pet’s life. If it doesn’t, there may be a standard of care issue.

But the board can’t help many pet owners who have complaints against Davis because the vets at Davis don’t have to be licensed. So they’re exempt from board oversight. Of the six vets who cared for Einstein and Kramer, none is licensed by the state. This exemption has been on the books for years. And it ties the board’s hands.

"With exempt settings, it’s very limited to what the board can do to actually protect the consumer and be proactive," said Del Mugnaio.

State Sen. Jerry Hill has heard complaints about Davis too. He’s working with the board on proposed legislation that would end Davis’ exemption, add oversight and require its vets to be licensed.

"What occurred was many of the consumers and their pets were treated by these veterinarians, and they had no recourse when they had what they felt was bad service, bad veterinarian medicine or inappropriate care," said Hill. "So they had no place to turn because there was no license with those veterinarians."

These pet owners are happy to hear things might change. But they wish reform had come sooner.

"I’ll never forget Kramer," said Chris. "I’m still not over it completely. But I feel like maybe it’s time to bring a new companion into my life."

The veterinary board said most states don’t regulate university settings, so California is being proactive with this proposed legislation.

Davis says it’s been working with the board on licensing.

Chris, Murat and another pet owner have retained an attorney and may sue Davis. According to their attorney, the potential lawsuit would make claims for breach of fiduciary duty, unfair billing practices and malpractice.

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