The $50,000 Mutt 

Under laws that treat pets as property, vets are largely unaccountable for malpractice. That's something a pair of rookie lawyers from Alameda hope to change.

Austin is dead and gone. He died more than a year ago, but Jennifer Rampton and her husband, David Lunas, still haven't found peace. In their minds, their boy should still be alive, and would be, had his doctor not misdiagnosed what in retrospect seemed like an obvious condition. The recent law school graduates were still students when they first brought their three-year-old beagle mix to Berkeley's University Veterinarian Hospital a couple years back. The two had a theory about why their supposedly neutered dog was humping a stuffed toy dog to the point of making himself bleed: a retained testicle. It certainly would have explained his odd sexual behavior, they figured.

The vet didn't seem worried about Austin, named after the bumbling British movie spy. After feeling the dog's genital area and stomach, court papers say, the vet confidently concluded the pooch didn't have a testicle hiding in his body. She allegedly assured the couple that Austin was exhibiting "normal dog behavior" and told them not to stress too much.

A year later, pet surgeons diagnosed Austin with testicular cancer after removing a three-pound malignant tumor from his seventeen-pound body. The couple's hunch about a retained testicle had been right after all. By now, portions of the tumor had become intertwined with the dog's major organs and couldn't be removed. To have any chance of survival, Austin would need expensive chemotherapy.

It was too late, it turned out, for chemo to do much good. On the way home from his fifth chemo treatment, the end was obviously near -- Austin puked nine times in the car and then refused to eat for three days. Rampton and Lunas were confronted with the most awful choice any loving pet owner with a sick critter must make.

Austin whimpered when vets from another clinic injected him with a euthanizing chemical the following week. Lunas put his hand on the dog's chest over his heart. He felt Austin's last heartbeat. Afterward, Lunas recalls with a sigh, he hugged the dog and sobbed.

Alive, Austin was worth about $25 if you go by what Lunas and Rampton paid for the mutt at the local shelter. Dead, he's worth as much as $50,000, if you go by what his owners are seeking in a malpractice suit against their veterinarian. Not only are they asking the vet and her hospital to cover $20,000 in cancer-related medical expenses but, with a little help from a pioneering animal-law professor, they are also challenging the dated legal contention that pets should be treated as personal property rather than man's best friend.

Except in truly unusual cases, property owners can't recover money for emotional distress caused by lost or destroyed property. Courts typically allow pet owners to recover only the market value of their lost or damaged property. And if that "property" happened to be a shelter mutt like Austin, the owner would be lucky to recover a box of animal crackers from the defendant.

But in more and more cases, pet owners such as Lunas and Rampton are asking judges to view their pets as something more akin to loved ones. In Austin's case, the Hastings graduates are demanding $30,000 in Alameda County Superior Court for the emotional distress they suffered after losing their dog. It's a long shot, especially for a couple of legal novices, but if they prevail, experts in animal law say it would be the largest-ever judgment of its kind against a California veterinarian. Like so many pet owners -- and there are an estimated 71.1 million households in the country with cats or dogs -- Jennifer Rampton and David Lunas considered their dog a member of the family, perhaps a bit more so than most: They dressed him up on Halloween as Dracula with a cape and hood. They bought him Christmas presents and gift-wrapped them. He'd even jump in the bathtub while Lunas showered before school.

This is an age where household animals are treated like spoiled children. It's not unheard of for divorcing couples to have raging custody battles over a pet, and thirteen states, according to one legal journal, allow people to establish trusts for their pets in case the owner should die first. In the American Animal Hospital Association's most recent annual survey of pet owners, 63 percent responded that they say "I love you" to their animals at least once a day; 83 percent of those polled refer to themselves as their pet's mom or dad; and 59 percent celebrate their animal's birthday.

Grief counseling is also widely available for people whose pets have died. And many of the dead receive a proper burial: There are now more than six hundred pet cemeteries in the United States, according to the International Association of Pet Cemeteries. Rampton and Lunas opted for cremation, and they keep Austin's ashes in an urn at their Alameda home.

But perhaps the single most telling indicator of how much our pets mean to us is how much we spend to keep them healthy. Americans spent $18.25 billion on health care for their dogs and cats in 2001, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. That's more than double what they spent a decade earlier. The average dog owner shelled out $179 on veterinary care for his pooch in 2001, the association estimates, while the average cat owner spent $83. That money almost always comes directly out of pocket, since only a tiny fraction of pet owners carry pet health insurance.

Oakland freelance writer Michael Hardesty says he spent more than $6,000 at a local animal hospital over four months to treat his two-year-old kitty, Gina. She had feline immunodeficiency virus, the cat equivalent of the virus that causes AIDS in humans. "I would have paid triple that to keep her alive," he proclaims. "She was the sweetest, most affectionate cat we have ever known. She was our baby." His cat died, he says, after losing too much blood during a biopsy in March. Afterward, he bought her a headstone and held a funeral service in his backyard. "Gina," he eulogized, "you will always live in our hearts." Hardesty is also thinking of suing his vet, whom he believes ended his cat's life prematurely; he says he has hired an attorney.

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