When Fido bites, some vets clamp down on his medical file

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 14, 2011; 7:49 PM

My dog Charlie doesn't have testicles. He once did, but now he doesn't. I don't know how he feels about my sharing this sensitive information with you, but, frankly, I don't care. He is, after all, a dog. It's not like the HIPAA medical privacy rules apply to him.

And yet, they do - sort of. That's what Lynn Westrope discovered when she was bitten by a dog the weekend before last. She was out delivering a community association newsletter in her Silver Spring neighborhood when a greyhound on a leash jumped at her and sank its teeth into her thigh.

The person at the other end of the leash wasn't the owner, but a petsitter. The owner was out of town, not due back for a week. Lynn wondered whether the dog's rabies shots were up to date. The apologetic petsitter gave her the number for the dog's vet - Friendship Hospital for Animals in the District - and Lynn started making inquiries.

After some back and forth, she had her answer from the hospital. "He said, 'I cannot reveal this,' " Lynn said of the staff member she spoke with. Lynn explained that the owner was gone and that she was facing the prospect of rabies shots. "He said, 'I'm sorry. I legally cannot give you the information without the express permission of the owner.' "

Ashley Hughes, a veterinarian at Friendship, said: "It's somewhat like a person's medical records, in that they have to be released by the owner of the dog. So if the dog's owner had called us or called to say it was okay to give this woman the information, it wouldn't have been a problem."

I asked whether there is an actual law to this effect. Ashley said there isn't. "It is just common practice," she said.

Lynn's reaction? "It's pretty absurd," she said.

What should have happened? Laura Downes, executive director of the Maryland State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, said the dog bite should have been reported to the police or animal control.

"When this happens to an individual, the individual is not supposed to take it upon themselves to conduct an investigation," Laura said. "They should really rely on law enforcement and animal control."

Although most veterinarians won't release medical information to just anyone, they are required to respond to police. And then the police or animal control can tell the bitee about the biter's vaccination record.

Lynn said that she called police to ask about how to report a bite but that when officers said they would be required to send two officers over and look for a loose dog (which it wasn't), she decided that was overkill. "I thought it was tying up a lot of police resources," she said. Plus, she said, "I didn't want to get the dog and the owner in trouble without having a chance to talk to them."

Authorities like to track dog bites, since they fall under the rubric of public health - not just the injury itself, but any disease that might be passed along.

So I guess the onus was on Lynn, though I do fault the hospital for dismissing her understandable worry and not telling her to go through animal control.

The owner returned earlier than expected and mailed Lynn a copy of the dog's vaccination records. To her relief, he's rabies-free.

Super pooper scooper

When I last wrote about Wayan Vota, it was to spotlight his efforts to keep Grant Circle free of dog poop. He hated encountering poop while walking his dog, Taxi, and so collected it, pounds and pounds of the stuff. He even posted a YouTube video about his pastime.

Wayne checked in recently to say that poop levels have fallen at the Petworth park, but not to zero. He still picks up poop. He estimates that in the past two years he's picked up 1,000 pounds of the stuff. "I picked it up two pounds a day at a time," he remarks on a recently posted YouTube video.

I've noticed that winter brings out the worst in poop scofflaws, who seem to think that when it snows, magic poop fairies spirit away the orphan turds. Guess what: There are no magic poop fairies. If you have a dog that poops - in other words, if you have a dog - please clean up after it.

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