Pet foster parent, Unleashed Pet Rescue organization fight over dog's health care bills

MISSION, Kan. - The number of pets in need of good homes continually exceeds the space animal rescue organizations have in their shelters. Many of these organizations have turned to “foster programs” to help them save more animals in need.

However, as this practice has grown in popularity, state laws have struggled to keep up. Missouri has no laws governing foster programs while Kansas has scrambled to put rules in place to protect volunteers, shelters and pets.

Kansas officials say  they have seen an increase in shelters as well as groups utilizing foster homes for pets they normally would turn away. The state sees these programs as a win-win for rescue organizations and volunteers: Rescue groups save animals and volunteers help care for a pet without a long-term commitment.

That’s created problems for both volunteers and rescue groups. If you plan on volunteering with one of these groups, making sure you understand the organization’s rules could save you some heartbreak and money.

Who pays for the pet's veterinary care?

Foster dog Jenna runs with ease around the backyard of Trisha Johnson’s Topeka home. At first glance, it’s hard to tell the Boston Terrier has undergone a lot of treatment for heartworms.

“She's a great, great, sweet, sweet dog, but right away when she came into the home, I noticed she had a cough,” Johnson said.

According to an agreement with Unleashed Pet Rescue, Johnson was required to bring Jenna back to the rescue’s assigned vet for treatment. However, due to the distance between Topeka and the shelter’s location in Mission, Trisha told 41 Action News she made arrangements to bring the pet to her personal vet.

There, Jenna was diagnosed with an extensive heartworm problem and referred to Kansas State University’s Veterinary Hospital. Johnson said cardiologists told her the heartworm problem was so extensive, she should either have Jenna euthanized or take her to the University of Missouri for heartworm removal surgery.

“She wasn't my dog and I didn't know really what I should do with the dog that was so severely ill,” Johnson said.

Johnson says she checked with Unleashed director Danielle Reno along the way about Jenna’s veterinary care and got to continue treatment for Jenna at K-State.

“My choice was going to be to euthanize her at that point and the only reason I didn't was because Danielle Reno told me and the cardiologist at K-state to keep her alive and they would help pay the bill,” Johnson said.

Johnson paid for the care with her personal credit card. She shared Facebook messages with 41 Action News including one from director Danielle Reno that said “I’m willing to keep trying if the dog is willing to keep trying.”

Trisha racked up bills totaling more than $5,000. She told 41 Action News she was reimbursed $829.

Volunteer, shelter not on same page

However, Reno gives a different account of the situation.

Reno says her organization agreed to cover some of Jenna’s initial vet bills as well as gave permission for Johnson to go to K-State. However, Reno said Johnson did not have permission to take the pet to MU. She points to those same messages as proof she told Johnson to return to the organization’s assigned vet for treatment.

Reno said the organization never agreed to pay for the entirety of the bill. She told 41 Action News the organization agreed to help fundraise for the pet and they sent Johnson the funds they collected.

Reno also pointed to messages showing Johnson declined help from the organization. (Johnson told 41 Action News she wasn’t declining help, but rather allowing the organization to treat other animals before reimbursing her for Jenna’s care.)

Reno told 41 Action News all of their volunteers go through a class and sign a form regarding the rules and that Johnson knew the consequences if she didn’t bring the pet back to Unleashed for care.

“We do explain to them that it is against the rules to do that but if they do choose to do that they are responsible for that bill,” Reno said.

States struggle to keep up

The popularity of pet foster programs creates a whole new territory for state regulatory agencies tasked with overseeing animal health and inspecting facilities.

In Missouri, the law gives the Department of Agriculture no authority to regulate these programs.

In Kansas, the Department of Animal Health has scrambled to regulate these programs by putting rules in place for shelters organizing these programs.

The agency is concerned leaving these programs unchecked could allow known hoarders, animal abusers or people running dog fighting rings to get around state regulation by taking advantage of the fact foster programs don’t have similar rules. State veterinarians are also concerned it could lead to the spread of disease among animals.

Kansas’ rules include:

  • Registering foster families with the state
  • Making sure the pet has proper health certificates
  • Appointing a vet the shelter will use for veterinary care
  • Educating foster families about what to do and where to take
    • animals in an emergency.
    • Keeping a signed contract with the volunteer on file
    • Holding training sessions for volunteers before they foster an animal

    Reno told 41 Action News that Johnson was informed of all of these rules and attended a training session. The organization holds those every Tuesday during which Reno reviews the rules for fostering a pet.

    “Basically we explain to them that they are babysitting the pet, “ Reno said.

    One of the rules Reno reviews is that volunteers are not supposed to bring pets to a personal vet.

    “We love our fosters and we support them and cover 100% of anything that has to do with fostering as long as they follow along with our rules,” said Reno.

    Meanwhile, the Kansas Department of Animal Health continues to work to revise its policies on foster programs. They’re now exploring how to make sure rescue organizations inspect the foster homes to ensure pets are in safe homes.

    Disagreement continues over Jenna's custody

    Even though Johnson has cared and paid for veterinary care for Jenna since October 2013, Jenna is still the property of Unleashed Animal Rescue.

    The two sides are now fighting over custody of Jenna. Unleashed has ordered Johnson to return the pet immediately. Reno believes the animal is still not receiving the correct care.

    However, Johnson told 41 Action News she paid the bills to save Jenna’s life so she believes she should keep her. She does not plan to return Jenna to Unleashed.

    “She will be my dog tilt he day she dies. She’s my family,” Johnson said.

    Johnson said she has learned a valuable lesson about making sure you know what you are responsible for paying when you agree to foster a pet.

    Not every organization offers reimbursement of expenses.  If you’re planning to foster a pet, the Kansas Department of Animal Health says make sure you know exactly what you’re responsible for paying, what the rescue will pay, and make sure that information is in writing.

    You can reach investigator Melissa Yeager at melissa.yeager@kshb.com , on twitter @MelissaKSHB or on Facebook .

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