The following question was posed to Dr. Patty Khuly in an article she writes for the Miami Herald.
"Our cats had to go to the vet hospital last week to have their teeth cleaned. The procedures went very well and, as predicted, both were back to normal that evening. Unfortunately, two days later they both started sneezing. First Patches and then Stumpy came down with the exact same cold. Patches got better but we had to take Stumpy back to the hospital. We actually had to pay more for his cold than for the teeth cleaning! Shouldn’t the vet have gone easy on us since our cats live safely indoors and they obviously caught the cold there?"
Here’s my take on the subject:
There are two main questions.
1) Did the cats likely get an infection at the clinic?
- That’s hard to say. Often, it’s straightforward. In a case like this, not so much. It’s possible the cats picked up a respiratory virus in the clinic from another cat that was sick, or from a healthy carrier. However, it’s also possible (and maybe more likely) that the cats had a recurrence of an underlying infection (or one did, then spread it to the other in the household).
- Feline herpesvirus is a common cause of upper respiratory tract disease in cats, and a large percentage of cats are infected when they are young. Herpesviruses often live dormant in the body after infections and can reactivate at any point, causing disease. Cold sores in people are caused by a human herpesvirus, and they behave this way too. Stress is a major cause of re-activation, and the stress of hospitalization, anesthesia and the procedure could easily have lead to recrudescence of herpevirus infection in these cats.
2) Did the clinic provide the required standard of care to reduce the risk of hospital-associated infection?
- Even if the cats acquired an infection at the clinic, it’s not necessarily the clinic’s ‘fault’, particularly if the infection came from a healthy cat that was shedding a virus, unbeknownst to anyone who would look at it. Infection is an inherent risk of hospitalization, and clinics have a duty to take reasonable measures to reduce the risk of disease transmission. That’s a bit of a moving target and it’s pretty subjective, but it’s a key point here. If the cat got the infection in the clinic, was it likely because of inadequate practices, such as failure to isolate a cat with respiratory tract disease, poor hygiene practices (e.g. poor handwashing), failure to use routine infection control measures (e.g. use of protective outerwear like a lab coat) and various other basic infection control concepts? If so, then the clinic’s liable (and should pay for the infection). If not, then it’s an unfortunate event but one that’s no one’s fault.
- We can’t prevent all infections, but we have a duty to try to prevent as many infections as possible. If the clinic had a reasonable infection control program, had this documented, and followed their policies, they’re unlikely to be liable. Beyond providing optimal patient care, this is why vet clinics need to improve infection control practices. Too often, infection control programs are very informal, undocumented and weak, creating risks to patients and staff, and creating liability risks for the clinic. It leaves the door open for someone to claim that a hospital-acquired infection occurred, and makes it hard for the clinic to convince anyone that the infection was non-preventable.
So, was it the clinic’s fault? I don’t know, and it’s hard to prove. It probably wasn’t, but only with a good infection control program could they state with confidence that they did their best to the prevent infection.