Dogfight: Boarding bill raises tempers


Puppies held hostage! That was the message fairly shrieking from my voice mail one afternoon last month. Alan Cone was calling, his children were allegedly crying in the background, and he was hopping mad: He claimed a local veterinary center was refusing to release the dogs unless he paid a bill that was more than double what he'd expected to pay. That was followed by a later message, in which Cone reported that he'd paid the bill and retrieved the dogs– but he was still really, really mad.

Cone's wife, Suzanne, had brought the five-month-old puppies, Lorna and Sam, to Crozet Veterinary Care Center (CVCC) on December 16 for an overnight stay while the family went out of town. Suzanne claims she had been told, when she called for prices, that the bill would be $15 per puppy for boarding and $15 each for the next shot in their series of vaccines, or $60 in all.

When the Cones arrived the next day to take the dogs home, however, they got a bill for $155. Alan protested that they had neither requested nor been informed of two exams, at $47 each, and claims he was told that if he didn't pay, he couldn't have the dogs.

The family retired to the parking lot, where Alan left his first message for me. Eventually he went back in, paid the bill, and drove his family, human and canine, home.

I spoke with CVCC veterinarian Martin Schulman and his office manager, Allison Kern. Schulman explained that the exam had been necessary because before a vaccine can be given safely, the veterinarian has to be sure the animal is healthy. This can be tricky; animals that spend time outside, for instance, might have a history of vomiting or loose stools– and the exam is even more important for puppies, since their immune systems are still developing.

Kern stated that Suzanne had originally called to see whether they could board the dogs over the holidays, but CVCC was booked up. She called back to say that another clinic could take them, but the puppies would have to have their next dystemper shot first; it would be simpler, she decided, to get the shots when the dogs were left overnight on the 16th. That way, the other clinic could simply accept them for boarding without first having to administer shots.

Kern sent me a copy of the boarding admission form Suzanne signed when she dropped the dogs off. Under "Instructions," two items have been checked: "DHLP/Parvo" and "Required Exam." There are no prices for either. At the bottom of the form, the total for boarding both dogs overnight has been computed: $31.30, minus the 10 percent discount CVCC gives for more than one dog. At that point, Kern says, things were fine.

Not so the next day, however, when the Cones came back. Kern claims that when discussions deteriorated to the point of raised voices, she asked the couple to step into a private office. According to Kern, when she produced the signed form, Suzanne replied, "I didn't read it." In the end, Kern claims, Alan declared, "Keep the dogs– I don't want them." Then, with Suzanne and their young children in tow, he adjourned to the parking lot.

When I asked Suzanne whether she'd read the form, she said, "I skimmed it, Evelyn-Woods style." As for Alan's declaration that he didn't want the puppies, he says he only asked, "You're telling me that if I don't pay this bill, you're going to keep the dogs?"

In any case, this sorry situation– like so many others– could have been avoided. On Suzanne's part, she could have read the form carefully and asked Kern how much the shots and exams would cost. On CVCC's part, they could include prices for all services, not just boarding, on the admission form.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second St. NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.