Pit bull at center of Sonoma County shelter adoption dispute
Dawn Justice and her husband took a chance on the pit bull when they adopted her from Sonoma County’s animal shelter in September.
The dog reportedly had been owned by a gang member brought up on murder charges. She was pregnant when she entered the Century Court shelter and she walked with a limp, something Justice, a Santa Rosa yoga teacher and longtime shelter volunteer, noticed when the couple agreed to foster the pit bull after she gave birth to a litter of puppies.
Shelter veterinarians determined the dog was suffering a minor soft-tissue?injury before declaring her healthy for adoption. But at her new home, the newly anointed “Tallulah Blockhead” still showed signs of distress while making mischief with her owners’ two other pit bulls.
“As soon as she started running for the ball, she was limping again,” Justice said.
The wound has festered into a full-blown dispute that reveals broader issues with pet adoptions in Sonoma County.
The couple discovered after taking Tallulah to their own vet that she has a fractured leg. They suspect the injury was misdiagnosed by shelter veterinarians prior to the adoption. But so far, their demand that the county help cover the $1,200 surgery bill has been met with solid resistance.
The dispute encompasses more than one dog. All shelters, and everyone who adopts a new companion from one, must contend with the possibility that at some point, the animal might be stricken with a previously undiagnosed ailment, or develop a new one. The question is: Whose responsibility is it to pay for treatment?
A review of policies at shelters around the North Bay reveals there is no consistency in addressing that particular concern. Some shelters set a timeline before the cost of medical expenses related to a sick or injured animal falls on the new owner. Such timelines vary from one shelter to the next. The nonprofit Sonoma Humane Society, which operates a shelter on Highway 12 near Sebastopol, has no formal policy on the issue.
The county shelter’s adoption contract “recommends” that new pet owners have the animal examined by a private veterinarian within 10 days of the adoption. The document also states that the animal should be brought back to the shelter and examined there if it becomes ill within three days of leaving the facility.
John Skeel, director of Sonoma County Animal Services, sought to clarify those provisions this week. He stated in an email that new owners are responsible for any medical expenses unless the dog takes ill within three days and is returned to the shelter. He said vets there have up to seven days to treat the animal.
While he expressed empathy for Tallulah’s plight and that of her new owners, Skeel said the county cannot help cover the cost of the dog’s surgical care without violating the terms of the contract and possibly opening the door to more claims. More than 1,200 animals were adopted from the shelter last fiscal year - out of more than 3,200 brought to the facility.
“It would be setting a precedent if we suddenly did a surgery, or paid for a surgery, months after (the fact),” he said in an interview.
Justice, who was honored as the county shelter’s volunteer of the year in 2006, does not claim ignorance of the medical-expense policy. But she argues it does not apply to her situation because shelter vets misdiagnosed her dog’s injury prior to the adoption.
“I’m not a huge shelter basher. I know there are really great people there,” she said. “But I feel this was a really bad decision.”
Justice and her husband had taken over Tallulah’s foster care from a Sonoma County Animal Services officer after the dog delivered puppies. When the couple noticed the dog was limping, Justice took her to the shelter for an examination.
Veterinarian Catherine Mackenzie was the first to examine the dog, on Sept. 8, according to shelter medical records provided by Skeel. The vet discovered a “palpably painful” spot in the elbow area of the dog’s left leg. She prescribed “strict rest and careful monitoring” for the following week, as well as pain medication. She further noted that the next diagnostic step might include X-rays.
Justice said she followed the vet’s orders, and at a follow-up exam at the shelter 10 days later, the pit bull appeared better. “Per foster” - referring to Justice - “greatly improved.”
The couple adopted the dog that day.
Justice said in hindsight it makes sense that Tallulah was doing better because the dog was medicated and resting. She said Tallulah’s limp returned after she was off the meds and running again. Justice sought help from her own vet, who discovered the fracture after taking X-rays of the injured leg.