What's Your Risk?

Liability for the transmission of zoonotic diseases can be a disaster waiting to happen. When a toddler playing with his puppy results in his being blinded due to Toxocara larva migrans infection, make no mistake: our litigious society will likely put the responsibility on you.

So when you consider your current practices for prevention and control of parasites, ask yourself, “What’s my risk?”

Defining Negligence and Risk

Our courts and juries decide negligence on a case-by-case basis in light of each situation’s facts—facts often characterized by 20/20 hindsight. A negligence finding requires that the defendant breached a duty of care owed to the plaintiff, and that such breach caused the damages in question. It is clear veterinarians owe a duty of care to their patients and clients. Given the preventable nature of common parasites with today’s broadspectrum anthelmintics, there is little doubt juries may find that veterinarians who fail to warn their clients of the risks have breached their duty of care. The same could be said of veterinarians who do not recommend comprehensive prevention and treatment of parasites.

Keep in mind that few soccer moms know Fluffy’s poop can cause little Cindy to go blind. It will be child’s play to transmit these emotions to a jury. While veterinarians traditionally are seen as protectors, failure to warn or prevent recasts them as callous targets for just retribution.

Finally, zoonotic transmission liability combines all the elements of a good media story. All it takes to seriously impair a practice’s reputation is a newspaper story linking a child’s zoonotic enterocolitis to a veterinarian’s failure to diagnose and treat the child’s puppy for hookworms.

Keep in mind you can be held negligent even if you did not intend to cause harm. “I didn’t mean to” is no defense against a negligence claim.

CAPC Guidelines Protect Patients and Practices

The guidelines announced in 2004 by the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC) were developed to change how veterinary professionals and pet owners address parasite management—while protecting pets and families. In addition to recommending year-round treatment with broad-spectrum heartworm anthelmintics, the CAPC guidelines recommend the following:

  • Conduct fecal examinations two to four times during the first year of life and one to two times per year in adults, depending on patient health and lifestyle factors. (Using centrifugal flotation technique in conducting examinations is optimal, as this method is more sensitive than simple flotation.)
  • Administer anthelmintic treatment of puppies at 2, 4, 6 and 8 weeks of age, followed by administration of a monthly preventive.
  • Administer biweekly anthelmintic treatment of kittens between 3 and 9 weeks of age, followed by administration of a monthly preventive
  • Treat nursing bitches and queens along with their offspring.

Client Education

Every client should be educated about the zoonotic potential of intestinal parasites. They also need to understand the importance of monthly broad-spectrum preventives and periodic fecal examinations. Finally, clients need to know how to dispose of feces and to understand the importance of keeping children away from potentially infected areas.

And remember—just because you think you’ve informed your clients about the risks of zoonotic parasites does not mean they heard you. A recent survey of 1,800 pet owners and more than 200 veterinarians revealed that, while four in 10 veterinarians say they discuss family protection against zoonosis during annual visits, only 3 percent of owners recall the subject being discussed.1 Along with educating clients, keeping signed forms on file that attest to their understanding is good insurance.

Veterinary liability for transmission of zoonotic diseases is only a matter of time. With the means to monitor, prevent and treat common parasites, it makes sense to protect your patients, your clients—and your practice.

Dr. Charlotte Lacroix is the president of Veterinary Business Advisors, Inc., based in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, 908-534-2065, a company that assists veterinarians and their attorneys nationwide with their veterinary business – related legal matters.

1 Data on file, Novartis Animal Health US, Inc., August 2003. Survey of veterinarians and owners.