Similar to a physician’s Hippocratic Oath, veterinarians take an oath of care prior to actually becoming a veterinarian. Although the oath recognizes animal welfare, the oath itself does not provide any legal duty to care for and treat animals in need.

The legal duty of care falls on the animal’s owner to seek out veterinary care for their animal’s well-being. Unlike taking your child to the pediatrician where the doctor owes a duty of care to your child to provide treatment that meets the level of skill or competence that most other doctors would provide under similar circumstances, the same laws do not protect your animal.

Nevertheless, veterinarians have some duties of care to treat sick animals, although these duties vary from state to state. These duties do not arise from health care statutes like a pediatrician’s duties to a child, but from common law contract rules regarding personal property and from common law tort rules regarding damage to personal property. Although you may consider your pet as a child, in the eyes of the law dogs (and other pets) are considered property and not persons.

However as professionals, veterinarians recently have become subject to statutes regarding neglect and abuse, and are held to a comparable standard of reasonable skill and care in the following areas:

  • Diagnosing conditions;
  • Preventing the spread of contagious diseases in their office;
  • Performing procedures;
  • Responsibly supervising assistants;
  • Providing treatment for sufficient periods; and
  • Administering medication in appropriate amounts

What is a Veterinarian’s Duty to Pet Owners?

A veterinarian generally has a duty to treat the pet that is brought to them by the pet’s owner. The vet’s responsibility is to first provide information about care and treatment options so that the owner may make the best decision possible for their pet, and at what cost. If the pet’s owner does not consent to any treatment, then nothing can be done by the vet.

Malpractice is a standard of legal liability that applies only to professionals. This means that if you consult the advice and receive treatment from a person that does not have a state veterinary license, they cannot be held to a standard of malpractice. 

For instance, if you have a horse and seek treatment from an experienced horse farmer to treat your animal and something goes wrong, that farmer cannot be held to a standard of malpractice, because he is not license by the state as a professional. 

Veterinary malpractice occurs when a veterinarian fails to meet the standard of care when providing healthcare to your pet, as well as causing preventable injury. Malpractice can also occur when a veterinarian performs services without the consent of the pet’s owner.

In order for a pet owner to recover for damages to their pet arising from a malpractice suit, they must meet the following requirements:

  1. The pet owner must show that the veterinarian had accepted a duty of care to treat the animal. This requirement is easily met by showing the veterinarian accepted responsibility to treat the animal;
  2. The pet owner must prove that the actions of veterinarian did not conform to the standard of professional conduct; 
    • This requirement is harder to meet, as the pet owner will normally need to hire an expert witness in the area of veterinary care to prove this requirement.
  3. The pet owner must prove that the failure to conform to the professional standard was the proximate cause of the injury or harm the pet suffered; and
  4. The pet owner must prove that the injury or harm resulted in damages to them, not just their pet.

Once the decision to treat an animal is made by the veterinarian, their duty of care kicks in and they must continue to treat the animal in accordance of that duty or at the very least inform the pet owner of their decision to stop treatment of the pet.

It is important to remember that the veterinarians decision to treat a sick or ill animal is an individual decision and they are under no legal duty to treat the ill or injured animal. Failure to make the decision to treat the animal does not constitute veterinary malpractice. 

Does a Veterinarian have a Duty to Stray and Abandoned Animals?

Veterinarians do not have any duty to treat stray animals, whether they are brought in by a concerned citizen or not. However, veterinarians may elect to treat the stray animals, or in extreme emergency situations, euthanize the stray animals. As an incentive for veterinarians to treat stray animals, some states like Massachusetts provide veterinarians with reimbursements to treat stray animals.

In the case of abandoned animals, most states have procedures set out for veterinarians to follow. In some states, the veterinarian has a certain amount of time to find a home for the abandoned pet.

Do I Need an Attorney for Veterinarian Malpractice?

If you suspect that a veterinarian is guilty of animal cruelty, mistreatment, or veterinary malpractice, you should consider contacting a personal injury attorney to assist you with you case. An experienced and qualified malpractice attorney can consult you regarding the facts and damages of your malpractice case and may even represent you on a contingent fee basis.