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Medical Error Is For the Dogs, Too

Sunday, September 2, 2007

It was an absolutely devastating moment when we learned from our veterinarian that our sweet brown and white greyhound Finnegan had two months to live.

A few weeks earlier, he had collapsed and lost feeling in his back legs. Ultimately we found out that Finnegan had a blood clot between two of his vertebrae pressing against his spine. With surgery, we were told, he would recover. As a precaution, once the clot was removed, it was sent to the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine for a biopsy. There was a greater than 90 percent chance that it was nothing, our vet said.

But when we went to pick up our dog, our vet told us he had been surprised that the biopsy -- whose results had been verified by two pathologists at Penn -- revealed that Finnegan had osteosarcoma, a painful and aggressive form of bone cancer. We would need to put him down within days if we wanted to spare him the pain.

The next few moments will be seared in our minds forever. As Finnegan was brought into the room, his face lit up as he saw us. Despite his slow hobble, his pace quickened as he came to both of us kneeling on the floor to greet him. We began to cry as we held Finnegan close and petted him, bathing his head in our tears. After a few terrible days, we decided to spare him the pain and scheduled an appointment to put him down.

The day before he was to be put down, we were just not feeling comfortable with what our vet was telling us, because Finnegan seemed to be recovering. So we decided to get a second opinion.

We reached out to Dr. Guillermo Couto, a leading expert on greyhound medicine at Ohio State University. After graciously reviewing Finnegan's file and meeting us, all of Couto's experts agreed that our dog's biopsy had been misread and he did not have osteosarcoma. Months later, instead of having cancer, Finnegan has made a full recovery. What is most shocking is that we almost euthanized him -- and we would have never known the difference.

According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, more than 63 percent of U.S. households have pets; this includes some 73 million dogs and 90 million cats. Americans spend a fortune on their pets, almost $40 billion in 2006 alone, of which more than $9 billion was for veterinary care. And yet, do people know what they are buying?

We know that medical error is a serious problem for humans. In a 2005 survey by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 34 percent of patients with health problems in the United States reported experiencing various preventable errors. Almost 200,000 people a year die from likely in-hospital medical errors, according to a HealthGrades study. Thus, one can only imagine how serious a problem this is in veterinary medicine. But unlike people, who usually speak up for themselves if treatment is not working, our pets rely on us to take care of them. We almost let Finnegan down. People should remember that veterinarians and their laboratories can make mistakes. When in doubt, and especially if the diagnosis just doesn't feel right, get a second opinion.

-- Lisa and Jared Genser

Bethesda

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