Pet owner shocked by delay in animal emergency

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by Diane Moca

WAUWATOSA – Peggy Brunner has spent much of her life caring for dogs and keeping them safe, so she was understandably shocked when money got in the way of immediate emergency assistance from a well-known animal rights organization.

"They're supposed to be helping people,” she described. "I was taken back that there was a charge. I didn't expect that."

Brunner says it happened after her precious pooch Lu Lu approached her one day with a bag of mouse poison in her mouth.
"I was very frantic, very frantic,” recalled Brunner.

She quickly realized that while she was distracted digging out tools to fix her washing machine, she left her basement door open. Brunner said she always kept the door closed to keep the dogs away from dangers, like old mouse poison, stored in the basement.

"I could see half the bag was gone,” she noted.

Brunner said at that point she instantly grabbed her phone and called an animal emergency clinic, which instructed her to call the Animal Poison Control Center (APCC).

She said she figured, “I've got help. They can tell me what I need to do."

But her relief turned to dismay as soon as she reached someone at the APCC.

"When I was on the phone with them, they said, there is a $65 charge for this,” explained Brunner. ”Thank God I had a credit card. I thought, this is a little much, but I need help right now."

The medical director for the APCC said the request for payment is typical.

“We do make sure that they know that there is a fee up front. And then we go through the consultation and then at the end of it, then we do collect payment,” said veterinarian Tina Wismer.

But Brunner said that's not what happened to her.

She said before anyone would tell her how to save her dog, she had to find her credit card and read the number to pay the center its fee.

Brunner said getting her credit card “was the first thing” she had to do before she got instructions for helping her poisoned dog.

Wismer responded: “To stay open -- we've got 27 veterinarians answering the phone -- we have to be able to pay our employees."

She said, “If we don't charge a fee, we can't stay open. And if we're not open, we're not going to be able to help any pets whatsoever."

Wismer said if people don't have a credit card or check by phone, the APCC recommends callers get in touch with a veterinarian or an emergency clinic.

“We would never just hang up on you or anything like that if you didn't have a means to pay,” she noted. “If it is a life-threatening situation, we will go on Google and look for the closest emergency animal clinic that they can call or go to."

But Brunner said her emergency clinic couldn’t go over the steps to take with a poisoned dog, and she was worried about the danger of waiting for her dog to receive treatment until she reached the clinic a half-hour away.

Brunner didn't know where else to call, so she paid the fee.

During our investigation, CBS 58 did not find any other national hotline dispensing information to help animals 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- except the APCC.

Brunner said while she was looking for her credit card, “I was shaking.”

She said once she paid the fee, she was relieved: “We got that out of the way.” She said the expert at the hotline told her: “Calm down. Do you have peroxide?”

Brunner said she had it on hand because she owned a pet first aid kit and had previously taken a pet CPR class, something she recommended for all pet owners.

"I was panicked. I knew this was bad,” remembered Brunner. “I didn't know if my other dogs had gotten any."

"I knew I needed to get them to throw up, but I didn't know what to use and how much. They did talk me through it, told me exactly what to give them for each dog per weight,” said Brunner. “You can burn their throats if you give them too much."

Brunner said the poison control expert said she should induce vomiting by using a syringe to shoot peroxide into all her dogs' mouths, in case the others got into some of the poison while the basement door was open.

"In a case like this you have to move quick. The faster you get it out of them, the better chance they'll survive,” noted Brunner.

She said the animal poison control expert spent more than a half-hour on the phone with her.

After all of her dogs were done throwing up, the expert on the other end of the phone told Brunner she still needed to bring Lu Lu to an emergency clinic, which cost hundreds of dollars more.

When CBS 58 called the Animal Poison Control Center, we heard a recording telling callers to press No. 1 for an emergency. If you stay on the line after that, then you will hear a description of the fee.

Brunner said she thought the fee “was a little strange. Human poison control you don't pay for. If you have a problem with your kid or yourself, you don't have to pay."

Wismer responded that callers "are informed that there is a fee for our service, as we don't receive any state or federal funding like the human poison control center."

She said the fee is explained at the beginning of the call, but the payment is due after the center collects information about the crisis.

"Our hotline is answered by veterinarians, veterinary technicians or assistants,” she noted. "The person will collect information on your pet and what they've gotten into and make an assessment on whether or not this is going to be a problem."

“What we want to know is: What did your animal get into? How much did your animal get into? And we’re going to want to know things about your animal itself: Is it a dog or cat? How much does it weigh?"

Doctor Wismer said callers don't have to pay at all if their pet has gotten into a product made by one of 35 corporate sponsors -- though she would not reveal the names of those sponsors or products.

If someone does not have a payment that can be given via phone, sometimes the APCC may make other arrangements. "We also do billing. We try not to do billing because most of the time we do not get paid for those calls,” said Wismer.

She said the fees cover expenses for handling between 300 and 800 calls a day and do not generate any extra revenue.

The Animal Poison Control Center is run by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), a non-profit organization that does not divert any of its donation dollars to running the poison center.

Wismer said donations “are used to help other animals that do not have owners."

“They do a lot of good things,” agreed Brunner. “But I was surprised at that, that they would charge to give you advice, 'cause you have to act fast."

The animal poison control number is endorsed by the nation's human poison control center, a free service for people calling with poison problems pertaining to people. That hotline refers pet owners to the APCC if they call requesting animal advice.

"I think of it as being a good organization. They help a lot of animals,” added Brunner, who said she wished the fee was optional.

“I think they could've said something like, if you feel like you would like to give a donation. And I think most people would if they helped them."

Brunner said the incident was the only time one of her pets got into poison.

She said she belongs to a dog training group, trains therapy dogs for nursing homes, volunteers at animal control, has taken an animal CPR class and is usually careful to keep anything dangerous out of reach of her pets.

The ASPCA recommends keeping a pet first aid kit on hand, which the group sells for $40.

If you have a story you’d like us to investigate, send an email to dmoca@cbs58.com.

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