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“The last time I saw Tootsie after surgery, she was wagging her tail,” the vet said. “She was cheerful, so I was as surprised as anybody to learn that she died.”
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In June 2005, McMahon was an Orange County lawyer whose hobby for more than two decades had been breeding and showing Maltese dogs. She’d been undeniably good at it, winning numerous contests. She has described her relationship with Tootsie with a single word: “love.” In anticipation of the dog’s arrival home from surgery, McMahon had placed dog treats in the house. But after midnight, she received the death notification from the animal hospital.
The news stunned McMahon, who’d been told Tootsie would be home in a matter of hours. She solemnly gathered up the treats, and then sat on her living-room couch. She recalled being “unable to cry or talk, staring into the darkness until the sun came up.” The pain of losing Tootsie kept her in bed for days.
Shock evolved into anger. McMahon says Craig had called her after Tootsie’s operation and said there’d been a setback, but not a major one: Within hours of surgery, the dog caught pneumonia.
“Dr. Craig made light of [Tootsie’s post-op condition] and told [me] it was not serious,” McMahon alleged later in a civil complaint.
Worse, according to McMahon, Tootsie was neglected. While other animals in serious condition were placed in an intensive-care area where nurses could constantly monitor them, she says, Craig put her dog in a cage in the back of the hospital. Tootsie was not given an IV drip for fluids or an oxygen tent despite her condition, the complaint alleges.
Said McMahon, “Simply put, Tootsie had zero medical attention on the night of her death.”
Still worse, according to McMahon, the veterinarian “lied” to her, claiming she’d given Tootsie only water after throat surgery, that the dog had never been left alone and had received the “best” care possible. McMahon obtained the animal hospital’s notes for the dog and says she discovered the heavily sedated animal had been given water laced with baby food hours after the operation.
“That is verboten because of the known risks of it getting into the lungs and causing pneumonia, especially where one of the folds in the throat has been tied back, leaving a direct pathway for the water or food to reach the lungs if the dog does not swallow correctly,” said McMahon.
She was incredulous that the vet attempted to mask her “malpractice” by failing to note in Tootsie’s medical records that the dog had been provided water, food or a combination of both.
According to the autopsy, food was found in the dog’s lungs, McMahon claims. Tootsie died painfully. She choked to death.
“What [Craig] did was so reckless you would think she had a death wish for the poor dog,” McMahon observed later in legal briefs.
After the autopsy, Craig “altered the nursing notes” to show that Tootsie was indeed given both food and water, McMahon charged. “It was a cover-up.”
Craig—who described McMahon as unneccessarily confrontational from the outset—denies the allegations. “Cover-up? I don’t know what she’s talking about,” the vet said. “She doesn’t understand what care was supposed to be given. I gave Tootsie fluids and tried to give her food, but she didn’t want it. Why would I need to cover that up?”
McMahon claims she was stung by another insult. The day after Tootsie’s death, Craig billed her Visa credit card for $609.30, the final portion of the surgery bill. According to court records, Craig attributed the fees to Tootsie’s “care.”
Believing that the vet’s conduct was reckless, fraudulent and malicious, McMahon filed her lawsuit in February 2006, seeking $7,000 for out-of-pocket expenses and $100,000 for intentional infliction of emotional distress. In her complaint, McMahon said, “Dr. Craig abused her position of power as a doctor.”
Wallace acknowledged in an interview that McMahon presents her case “strongly and vigorously.”
“But she is factually incorrect,” said Wallace, who disputes McMahon’s interpretation of the autopsy findings, the lack-of-adequate care claim and the existence of a cover-up. “I can confidently state that nothing at all was done wrong by Dr. Craig or her staff. Tootsie succumbed to a known risk of this type of operation. Based on what I know, I think her own saliva got into her lungs. She developed aspiration pneumonia and died. I know Ms. McMahon wants to see it differently, but that’s the truth. There were no errors. There was no negligence.”
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Lawsuits against veterinarians aren’t uncommon, but McMahon’s suit sent a ripple of panic through the multibillion-dollar pet industry. Lawyers representing veterinarians’ associations, animal hospitals, and corporations selling pet food and products went on red alert. No fewer than eight industry organizations have provided legal assistance to Craig.