Abby before her ordeal

From Allie: Stemming from my blog on July 12th called We Can No Longer Remain Silent, this is the second guest blog in a series that will let you hear directly from experts in the field about animal abuse and ways that we all can get involved to prevent it and protect animals. Please share your thoughts and share with others!


By Sandra D. Sylvester, J.D.

What a sight-a small, frail nine year old girl and an eighty pound German shepherd named Abby walking the halls of the courthouse together.  They met a year prior, when the child was preparing to testify in a preliminary hearing against the man who raped her.  She was at first afraid of this big dog, but after showing her how to take the oath to tell the truth,  counting to ten and teaching the child not to take treats from strangers, the little girl warmed up to this gentle giant.

A year later, things had changed and now the sight of this child and this dog walking together had new meaning.  The child was preparing to testify in the trial of her rapist.  She requested Abby come to the courthouse to help prep her testimony.  In the year since they had first met, Abby had undergone two major surgeries and two MRI’s- four procedures requiring general anesthesia.  She now had to wear a diaper due to a surgeon’s mistake.  The child was told about what happened to Abby and responded by saying “It’s OK, I wet the bed sometimes too.”    There they were, hand in hand, walking the halls of justice- both victims and both survivors.

As a prosecutor with over thirty years’ experience as a lawyer, I thought I was well equipped to deal with any situation that would require advocating a position or for a victim.  I could not have been more wrong.  When my own dog Abby needed me most to be her voice, I was helpless and overwhelmed.  It is my hope by writing her story in this blog, to inspire people to question, demand and advocate for their pets when dealing with a medical community that can be dismissive and cold.

Abby was only two when she started coming up lame.  After three different veterinarians diagnosed her problems ranging from panosteitis to soft tissue injury, broken toes to ACL tears, she was finally diagnosed as having herniated discs in her caudal area.    We were told her surgery would be unremarkable and she would make a full recovery.  When she was discharged from the hospital, we knew something was wrong- she was completely incontinent.  After calling the surgeon’s office, we were told “she had to figure it out for herself”.   A tortuous weekend trying to keep this proud dog clean resulted in a trip to the emergency room.  Unbeknownst to us at that time, the surgeon owned the emergency room we were referred to.   The veterinarian on duty told us Abby’s anus was gaping open by the size of a half dollar and sold us waterless shampoo.  She advised us to take Abby back to the hospital the next day.

On Monday, Abby was seen by another surgeon- he lifted her tail and saw the laxity in her anal tone and admitted her.  For five days, she lingered in the hospital.  When the original surgeon returned from a trip, he was dismissive and arrogant about our repeated requests for referrals to major veterinary hospitals in the area or for repeat MRI/imaging studies.  Abby was dying and no one seemed to care.  Finally, after demanding our medical records and being refused a full copy of our record, Abby was sent to a neurosurgeon.  In the second surgery, the neurosurgeon determined that four to six of Abby’s sacral nerves were severed.  These nerves control the bowel, bladder, right leg and tail.  Prior to the first surgery, Abby’s right leg had been the strong leg and the herniation was impinging on her left leg.  Now both of Abby’s rear limbs were compromised.

As if the severing of her nerves was not enough, we learned that the surgeon and the hospital that cared for her for the week following the discovery of her incontinence, never evacuated her bowel or bladder.  Even if the nerves could regenerate, the fact that her bladder was filled to three times its normal size permanently damaged her bladder.  Had she not undergone the second surgery, there was a likelihood her bladder would have ruptured and she would have died.

Despite my legal training, I was so desperate to save this dog.  I offered to waive liability if the first surgeon would have just helped us.  My pleas fell on deaf ears.  It wasn’t until I told the first doctor that if Abby died in his care, I would demand a necropsy that we received the referral.

I still lose sleep when I remember the bad dreams I had during Abby’s hospitalization.  This may sound overly dramatic, but it is true.  The first night she was sent back to the hospital, I woke up in the middle of night with a feeling of such dread.  I screamed from my sleep, “She’s dying”.  I should have trusted those instincts and demanded she be released and referred elsewhere.  I regret I did not.  Instead, because she was in their care, I felt it safest to be polite and compliant.  I did demand to see her the next day and was appalled at her condition.  Her kennel was wet with urine and stained with feces.  Her eyes were glossy and sunken.  Her spirit was broken.  Even at this sight, I still felt inadequate to deal with the dismissive treatment and still trusted they knew what to do for my dog.  I now realize I was complicit in the cruel treatment of my dog.  Even though I demanded they clean her kennel, whenever I visited her, it was obvious to me that they had not been attentive to her needs.  My point is- animal cruelty comes in all forms and can be subtle.  If as a pet owner, you believe your pet is not receiving the best care, do not feel the medical professionals know more than you.  No one knows your dog more than you or better than you.  Be your dog’s advocate and demand the best care or find another vet.


Abby’s recovery has been slow, but she has the resilience of a German shepherd.  She wears adult diapers, because the doggie diapers don’t fit.  She graciously tolerates our manual evacuation of her bowel and our clumsy efforts to learn how to express her bladder.  She has since been certified as a therapy dog and works with abused children.  She has a new trick- when asked if wearing a diaper makes her a SHY DOG, she runs between my legs and hides her head.  The children get a big laugh over that.

In addition to vowing I would never be complacent about my pet’s care again, this experience also began a journey through the legal system in the Commonwealth of Virginia, a system that values pets as property.  I am a criminal lawyer and knew better than to handle a veterinary malpractice case.  Trying to find a malpractice attorney in Virginia was near to impossible.  I soon learned that because pets were valued as property, very few people sue their veterinarian because you would be paying for a lawyer to basically break even.  Many lawyers told me to move on and forget the legal system as a means of seeking redress.  I finally found an attorney who was willing to send a demand notice to the insurance carrier for the first surgeon.  Within weeks of getting our demand letter, the insurance carrier offered a  settlement.  While it would never compensate us for Abby’s care for the rest of her life, it did reimburse us for the second surgery.  It was quite disturbing to sign a statement saying I would not claim anymore damage to my property.

Animal owners need to be more proactive in demanding quality care for their pets.  The cost of veterinary care can be significant.  Most doctors require the money upfront and in cash, unless you have pet insurance.  Why, then, are they held to a standard well below that of physicians?  When we explored the option of veterinary malpractice, we faced resistance from attorneys, veterinarians and animal advocates.  I was serving on an animal advisory committee and found many of the pet “advocates” thought requiring veterinarians to uphold a standard of care and be responsible for pain and suffering was a horrible idea.  Unlike my automobile or other “property”, my dog feels pains and knows suffering.  Imagine, not having your bowel or bladder emptied for nine days!  Yet, that is what she endured in the care of this surgeon.

We have also pursued action against the entire staff through the Board of Allied Professionals.  That was also an enlightening experience.  The Board dismissed the complaints against the ER veterinarian and the veterinarian who admitted Abby and recently sent us a lovely letter finding no negligence on behalf of the surgeon who severed her nerves, who did not treat the pseudomonas infection she got while in his care, who left her in her own excrement for five days and who repeatedly told us that he was “perplexed” as to how Abby became incontinent.  We have just filed a request with that Board for clarification and reconsideration.  Our next step is to file grievances with all the accrediting agencies involved in the practice.

For anyone who may be aggrieved by poor veterinary care, I suggest you take the following steps:

  1. Pay with credit card.  We filed a contest with the credit card company for poor service for the initial surgery and the boarding fees and received a full refund.
  2. Document everything-names of all personnel and every conversation you have.  Follow up and if you live in a state where tape recording is permitted- do so.
  3. Demand the best care for your pet.  You are paying for it.  We researched everything we could about caudal equina syndrome (the final diagnosis for Abby) and learned about cutting edge technologies including stem cell replacement.  I regret not being more demanding and will not make that mistake again.
  4. Do your research!  We are managing our new puppy’s care, by researching side effects of vaccines, etc.  We are now controlling what is done to our dogs and have partnered with an open minded veterinarian.  If I don’t like the care my pet is receiving, I will take my business elsewhere.
  5. Obtain all your vet records- you paid for them!

Until states change their laws and view animals as more than “property”, the redress for inflicting injury on an animal will be difficult.  Abby’s life has surely been altered by the actions of this surgeon.  During the second surgery, the neurosurgeon noted her nerves had retracted.  There was a chance, if the first doctor had taken our concerns seriously, that the nerves could have been resected.  Abby’s life span has been shortened due to the risks of infection.  I now live with the credo- “Patient Heal Thyself”.  My husband and I learned everything we could about caring for Abby and quite frankly, know more than most doctors.  Our regular vet calls Abby the miracle dog and shares our story with others to inspire them to not give up on their pets.  He says most people would have put her down and we would never have known that she could, in time, lead a healthy and happy productive life.  We researched and utilized stem cell replacement for her and have gotten wonderful results.  We took the initiative and found a doctor who would partner with us in using this experimental treatment. We are glad we did!

Sandy with Abby
Sandra Sylvester is an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney in Prince William County, Virginia and a certified dog trainer. She has been a prosecutor for 25 years and has been prosecuting animal abuse cases for 10 years.

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