Administration and Leadership, Columns

Pro Bono: Legal Issues in Treating Injured Pets

Issue 12 and Volume 41.

In addition to our human loved ones, our pets are also treasured family members. EMS providers may be the only ones equipped for the moment when a four-legged life is on the line.

Do we increase our legal risk if we take that extra step to render aid to a pet on scene?

As with anything we do on the job, there of course can be legal consequences. But the benefits of helping a family save their pet far outweigh the minimal legal risk of taking action and using our human care skills to help save the life of an animal in crisis.

Legal Review

The law is starting to take more formal steps to recognize and protect public safety providers who render emergency treatment to animals. A recent revision to Ohio law now expressly allows first responders to administer lifesaving aid to pets, companion animals and police dogs in a crisis. The new law, which became effective on Aug. 31, specifically exempts first responders from what could have been a potential violation of the Ohio Veterinary Medicine Practice Act (VMPA) for the unlawful practice of veterinary medicine. (Ohio Revised Code, Chapter 4741, Section 4741.20(j)).

Like the practice of human medicine, the veterinary medicine profession is highly regulated with similarly worded provisions related to licensure and qualifications of medical care providers. Veterinary medicine is also governed by state law, and all states prohibit “unlicensed practice.”

Under virtually all VMPAs we reviewed, we found that most states have adopted language similar to the Model Veterinary Medicine Practice Act of 2013—a model VMPA statute developed by the judicial council of the American Veterinary Medical Association. It states very clearly that the VMPA shall not be construed to prohibit: “any person who, without expectation of compensation, provides immediate veterinary care in the event of an emergency or accident situation.”

Check your state law, but in most cases you’ll find there’s no legal prohibition from treating pets and animals who are ill or injured at the scene of a fire, accident or other emergency scenes.

The recent amendment to the Ohio statute got a lot of press, but in our view, it already allowed first responders to treat pets on scene under an existing section that states the VMPA doesn’t apply to “a person who offers gratuitous services in the case of an emergency.” (See Section 4741.20(i).) The revised section now makes it explicitly clear that the statute doesn’t apply to EMS personnel treating pets at the emergency scene and may help encourage first responders to do so.

Duty & Negligence

There’s no legal duty under any statute that would compel EMS personnel not covered by the VMPA to provide emergency treatment to a pet. Any possible “duty to treat” would be limited only to veterinary professionals covered under their states’ VMPA.

Though first responders may not have a duty to treat an injured pet, there could be the potential for a legal claim of negligence if an EMS provider assumes that duty by initiating treatment and it’s alleged that the treatment is improper or otherwise cruel.

There may also be Good Samaritan-type immunities, but this differs from state to state. Some states provide statutory immunity for first responders and others who take affirmative action to rescue a child or an animal left in a hot car. For example, Tennessee law enacted in 2015 grants civil immunity to any person who forcibly breaks into a motor vehicle to save a minor or animal. (T.C.A. § 29-34-209.)

Even though a negligence lawsuit would be extremely unlikely, the key to defending any potential claim is to provide care to the injured animal in a reasonable and prudent manner. We’re not aware of any case where a public safety provider was sued for negligence by the owner of a pet that was treated by EMS providers in an emergency situation.

On the flip side, you don’t want to be in the position of placing animal life over human life. Before initiating care on an injured animal, it should go without saying that you must ensure all human patients are being taken care of first and that no critical EMS resources are being diverted from the preservation of human life.

Develop a Plan

What you or your crews are allowed to do should be discussed in advance. Many animal rights groups have developed special treatment kits and guidelines on how to best administer life support procedures on typical household pets such as cats and dogs. (See “Pet Patients: Assessment & treatment of dogs & cats involved in fires.”)

Getting involved in saving the lives of these important non-human family members can be both professionally and personally rewarding. But most importantly, saving a valued pet can go a long way toward reducing the pain and suffering of our injured or displaced human patients.