One Arizona pet owner cautions about his experience with the state’s veterinary medical examining board after the tragic loss of his cat

“Harper’s story”

Michael Russell, Opinion

Every state has its own version of a veterinary medical examining board whose primary function is to ensure that an often-unsuspecting public is kept safe from negligent or incompetent veterinarians.

Many pet owners in Arizona do not have appropriate protection for their pets with regard to filing complaints against negligent veterinarians.

And, according to the legal definition of a “pet”—most states do not recognize a pet as much more than property—as a troubling article in the New York Times reported last year.

“While courts award multimillion-dollar judgments for negligence in hospitals, states treat companion animals as a form of property, and owners have little opportunity to sue for damages beyond the cost of a replacement. Unlike the extensive national records kept on doctors and nurses, there is no comparable data repository to track problematic veterinarians, and state review boards rarely put sanctioned practitioners out of business.”

In Arizona, the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board is authorized by the state to regulate, license and investigate complaints on all veterinarians and technicians.

Nine members sit on Arizona’s board, including five veterinarians, one vet technician, one livestock representative and two members of the public.

The board meets in Phoenix once a month in a public session. Despite the monthly meetings, an average of two board members are absent each month.

In the last four years, approximately 400 complaints have been reviewed by the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board, where pet owners have alleged everything from serious injury to death of their pet(s) while in the care of a veterinarian.

Reviewing the publicly available complaints, approximately 80% were dismissed and frequently, through a unanimous board vote.

These records show that in another 10% of cases, the board issued a Letter of Concern, which involves no discipline but goes into the veterinarian’s record and describes the alleged violations.

In most of the remaining 10% of these cases the vets receive fines (and, according to the public records these fines are usually between $100-$500), and a “Consent Agreement” is often required that includes minor re-training courses with a short probationary period.

However, out of the 400 veterinarian complaints since 2018, only one license was revoked and three were suspended.

Why did less than 1% of the over 400 complaints that were reported to the board in fiscal years 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 result in revocation or suspension?

A leading factor may be that most pet owners are unaware of the protocol when filing a complaint on behalf of a beloved pet.

To begin, any veterinarian who has a complaint filed against them is represented by an attorney who specializes in this legal proceeding.

The attorney of record has been present at almost every monthly board meeting (when complaints are brought before the board) even if the veterinarian in question cannot make it. Although most vets appear to use this particular attorney, some have elected to hire a private attorney.

In addition, the board itself, with plenty of knowledge and experience in both veterinary care, state law and board procedure, has an Arizona State’s Assistant Attorney General present at each meeting representing them.

On the other hand, pet owners often present their cases to the board without any knowledge that an attorney will be advocating on behalf of the veterinarian in question and of the board itself.

In addition, there is almost no mention of pet owners likely needing (or desiring legal representation) within the veterinary medical examining board website information for owners who wish to file a complaint.

The Tragic Loss of a Beloved Pet

Unfortunately, I discovered the lack of oversight on the part of the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board almost two years ago after a tragic incident involving my own pet.

Our six-year-old cat “Harper” had a great personality and loved everyone. He would wait at the door for us when we came home. He loved his cat family and all cats. He loved dogs too and would often play with our pups.

Harper had contracted a bad cold but was otherwise healthy and had a great appetite.

Our former veterinarian retired a while back so we were looking for a regular vet and found one nearby. Unbeknownst to us, the “mom and pop” looking establishment was part of a large chain.

After trusting my cat’s well-being to these veterinarians, Harper quickly lost weight, suffered slowly and passed away on their prescribed regimen— a protocol that we thought would help our cat.

Harper was gone in less than three months.

In Harper’s final days, emergency phone calls to this vet went unreturned.

I filed a complaint with the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board and I eventually realized that I had managed to get farther than most complainants because I pushed and finally received notice of the veterinary board’s “second level”—or, being called in for an informal interview.

To my surprise, the board refused to review much of the evidence that I had made them aware of.

This evidence included a phone recording of the animal hospital owner, who finally called me a month after Harper’s death and made excuses as to why his vets never returned our emergency calls while acknowledging that we did make those calls.

There was evidence of a prescription bottle they provided with the warning label covered.

I also wanted the board to review Harper’s prior veterinarian’s records for comparison—which showed that our cat had gained (not lost) weight over the previous six months.

Some of these records I acquired on my own, and some I needed help getting. But for the most part, my evidence was not addressed, it was ignored.

The board also refused to evaluate two different opinions I got from other vets with regard to Harper’s blood results—these opinions contradicted the vet in charge of Harper’s care.

The board discussed violations that these veterinarians committed—but took no action.

The violations included an admission by one of the vets that she kept a “personal” supply of prescription drugs and dispensed them privately with no chain of custody—a clear violation of statutes.

The board also discussed the violations in not returning emergency phone calls to me. Still, instead of listening to my evidence (the phone recording proving the discussions took place) the board later accepted the vets’ lawyer’s statement that she didn’t know about the calls.

I also wanted Harper’s current lab records subpoenaed as I explained to the board that the date was incorrect on his blood work, pointing to a significant mix-up with another pet’s blood work.

The vet also admitted to leaving Harper’s collected blood out on the table unattended for nearly an hour while another matter was attended to.

And yet the board refused to try to subpoena the lab’s records, telling me the vet probably just put down the wrong date.

The vets essentially put Harper on a regimen for end-stage kidney failure based solely on the blood test with an incorrect collection date which included a bland diet food which Harper did not like, frequent fluids by needle under his skin and Epakitin powder mixed in his food.

Harper had severe side effects and lost weight on this regimen which may have been based on another pet’s blood. In addition, these vets did not monitor his progress, including not giving him an IV or anything else in his final days when he was not eating or drinking.

It was hard to fathom the board letting these vets completely off the hook with all this evidence staring them in the face, but they did.

There was little else I could do as the board will not let a pet owner speak after their five-minute time slot is up, even to correct a board discussion error. However, vets are allowed to participate in these critical back and forth board discussions.

Much to my horror, I have read Google and Yelp reviews since then and have discovered where other pet owners lost pets even younger than Harper to the same veterinary practice.

I also noticed many other tragic pet veterinary reviews with no matching board complaint.

Unfortunately, I found my experience with the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board to be the norm, not the exception.

At a time when the number of licensed veterinarians is skyrocketing nationally, and going from 2000 to nearly 3000 in a few short years in Arizona, more, not less oversight, is needed. Trying to find a quality vet for a beloved pet is more challenging than ever.

Up to Owners to Investigate Veterinarians When looking for Qualifications:

I devised an easy four-step method that can hopefully help pet owners find qualified and competent veterinarians. I call it the HARPER Care Method, or—Help Animals Receive Proper Essential Restorative Care.

  1. Check the reviews on both Google and Yelp by looking for the names of the veterinary practices. Use the sort feature to get to the lowest rated one and two-star listings. Read those and cross vets off your list that did something to a pet that you would not want to happen to your pet. Keep in mind that some businesses pay for and even post phony positive reviews. This is why you look through the bad ones.
  2. Make certain that the veterinary practice is AAHA accredited. Simply enter your zip code. This national veterinary organization has much more rigorous standards than the state minimum.
  3. Check your state’s veterinarian licensee directory, which lists the vets’ discipline database. Arizona’s is here. You search here by the veterinarians’ name. Any case that resulted in discipline should be listed, helping to narrow your list.
  4. Find a place that is somewhat close and convenient to you. Ideally, the closest one to you that passes the first three steps.

I believe that if I had used a checklist like this…Harper would still be alive today as the vet we took him to would have failed.

Both in Harper’s case with the state’s veterinary examining board and the seven years of cases I have personally and painstakingly reviewed—having an attorney on only one side (the side representing veterinarians) has resulted in obvious inequitable decisions.

While I do believe that both pet owners and veterinarians should have representation in these complaints to help ensure that all records and key evidence are collected and presented to the board. Currently, pet-owning complainants are left to guess what evidence, if any, the board will accept, review or how to even obtain and present it.

The State of Arizona needs to step up and fill the large void in this process. They should offer separate and equal legal representation on behalf of the interests of Arizona’s pets and their owners. This is something I believe that most Arizonans would want.

Some Previous Reviews of the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board:

In a 1997 state auditor’s review of the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board— the auditor in question blasted the board for their lack of adequately investigating and disciplining bad veterinarians.

Since 2014, the minutes from each public board meeting have been available online for public viewing.

In the seven years of available public records, the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board appears to have continued the lax investigation and disciplinary actions the state auditor complained about in 1997.

The auditor complained then that the board did not take disciplinary action in over 90% of its cases which he said warranted a higher discipline rate. The current rate of disciplinary action is about the same. In addition, the auditor called for an equal number of public board members. Still, over twenty years later and the board seats only two public members out of nine.

A 2011 law replaced one public board member with a veterinary technician.

Looking closely into the one veterinarian where the board did revoke the license in the last four years left me baffled.

After routinely dismissing cases where pets had been injured, suffered and/or died because of incompetence or negligence—the one veterinarian who did have their license revoked had some of their charges listed but they included, in my view, inconsequential matters such as not returning a board member’s email and the listing of a pet’s age as “unavailable.”

The Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board does not have a good record of disciplining serious violators and in the abovementioned case, revoking the license of that vet was ludicrous.

The board system in our state is out of balance—way out of balance.

There Are Many Good Veterinarians in Arizona:

The majority of veterinarians in Arizona are professional and responsible.

Most veterinarians do not have multiple complaints lodged against them.

Many have none.

But in the cases of Arizona pet owners who have experienced the unnecessary and tragic loss of their pet, there is little or no recourse against bad veterinarians.

One veterinarian has been before the board 12 separate times, being found negligent in numerous alleged cases of tragic pet suffering and deaths over just the past six years alone and his license has not been revoked. One of the public board members motioned to revoke his license in a 2016 case; however, the motion failed in a 6-3 vote (both public members voted to revoke).

Repeat offenders give the veterinary profession a bad reputation.

The Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board’s mission statement reads in part:

The Veterinary Board protects the health, safety and welfare of the general public, as well as the welfare of animals.’

But the board’s continuing lack of action appear to indicate that they are more interested in protecting the licenses of veterinarians—even those who have logged repeated offenses.

Month after month, devastated pet owners recount to the board their alarming stories about their pets and provide information regarding the veterinarians that fell short of adequate care. But most pet owners leave disheartened that little or no action was taken in their case in order to prevent the same thing from happening to another pet.

From December of 2016 to the present, serious complaints against bad veterinarians have gone up and yet there has only been the one dubious license revocation in Arizona by the board.

It is time for the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board to better represent the needs of Arizona pet owners by permanently stopping serious repeat violators from practicing on Arizona’s pets. An attorney assigned to pet owners’ cases is crucial in that regard.

Northeast Valley News has tried on several occasions to secure an interview or response to allegations. The board director has been contacted on at least three separate occasions.

As of publication, has not received any communication from the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board director, spokesperson or representative after repeated attempts for an on the record response.


***Michael Russell is a journalist and writes about the tragic loss of his own pet and the subsequent experience with the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board.