When Sheila Sowell set out to buy a dog, she didn't strap a leash on the first mutt she laid eyes on. After she finally gave in to her husband's demands that the couple acquire a canine companion, the 37-year-old nurse and Pembroke Pines resident scoured pet shops and kennels, scanned classified ads in the newspapers, scratched the noggins of dozens and dozens of potential pet pooches.
Then she spotted an ad for Merryfield Kennels, a large Oakland Park facility recognized for its wide assortment of dogs and for its breeding and showing of rottweilers. When she visited Merryfield in July of 1989, Sowell sat in a room as a procession of dogs was paraded in front of her one by one. "They have this salesperson tell you how wonderful all of them are, and how all of them are pure breeds," Sowell recalls. "But I didn't care for most of them. Some of them were real barkers. Then I met Spunky. He was so adorable I fell in love with him right away." After just a few moments, Sowell decided that the four-month-old white toy poodle should join her family, and she gladly shelled out the sale price of $595.
During the poodle parade, Sowell says, she was given an irresistible incentive to buy a dog at Merryfield. "They have a very unique sales tactic, especially to an uneducated pet buyer like me," she says. The kennel offers a guarantee: Should your Merryfield-purchased pooch die of sickness in the first year after you buy it, the kennel will replace it, free of charge. If the death is accidental (under the wheels of a car, for instance) Merryfield offers a 50 percent discount on a living, breathing, panting replacement for up to ten years after purchase. The company tacks on ten years worth of free annual checkups by their designated veterinarian, as well as ten years worth of monthly worm checks, eight free obedience lessons, $50 worth of supplies, and a free pet portrait.
In March 1990, with several months still remaining on the kennel's guarantee, tragedy struck. "He was just running around the house one day being his usual Spunky self," says Sowell, "and out of the clear blue sky he starts wimpering in pain." Alarmed, Sowell rushed Spunky to a local vet who diagnosed a congenital dislocated kneecap on the dog's left hind leg. The injury, the vet said, would require surgery to prevent a limp and avoid arthritis later on. Sowell then took Spunky to Oakland Park to confront the kennel owners with the sad truth. Gregg Docktor, who along with his brother Lloyd has owned the 31-year-old kennel since 1972, says he has never heard of free surgery being included with all the other freebies that come with a Merryfield dog. But Sowell insisted it was part of the guarantee, and demanded that Spunky be helped at no cost. After some argument Merryfield agreed, and the $323 surgery was performed in March 1990 by Dr. Elliot Stetzer, who operates Animal Hospital at Merryfield as a separate business but has a cooperative agreement with the kennel to provide medical care to "guaranteed" pets.
Sowell says the surgery was a disaster. In the process of prepping Spunky for surgery, she alleges, Stetzer inflicted a razor burn that she says cost her twenty dollars worth of antibiotics to treat and resulted in a permanent, one-inch-square scar. And this past September, more than a year after the surgery, another veterinarian, Dr. Jay Ferber, noticed three lumpy areas on the surgery scar. A boil that developed in October was treated with antibiotics, but the staph infection recurred a month later. Ferber lanced the infection, but it persisted. On November 20 Spunky went under the knife once again. Ferber discovered three undissolved stitches, which a lab later determined were the cause of Spunky's knee infection.
Ferber says he was unable to determine whether the Merryfield vet's handiwork had permanently cured Spunky's dislocated kneecap. "I did not see any scar tissue around the joint capsule, and they said they did surgery in the joint," Ferber observes. "Maybe it was done so precisely it healed without any scar tissue, or maybe the surgery in the joint wasn't done. In my opinion this dog is not a candidate for further surgery [to correct the condition] right now, but I can't predict the future." The more important issue, Ferber suggests, is whether the sutures should have been left in. He is trying to determine the manufacturer to see if it recommends the stitches be used under the skin.
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Sowell says another vet told her that under similar circumstances, one in five dogs experiences an adverse reaction to the suture material used in Spunky's knee. That was enough for her. On December 3 she filed a small-claims suit against Merryfield Kennels and Dr. Elliot Stetzer in Broward County Court. Sowell seeks damages of $2499 -- the "highly inflated cost of a dog that has had chronic problems since one year of age," plus $506 for current vet bills, Ferber's estimate of $1000 for future surgery, and $398 for "mental and physical anguish" inflicted on the dog and its owner. "Last but certainly not least," Sowell wrote in a letter she filed with the lawsuit, "Spunky limps, especially after walking or running. Plaintiff was told that surgery would eliminate this problem."
That's news to him, contends Dr. Stetzer. "Nothing was done inappropriately to that dog," he asserts. "We've done hundreds of these operations with no ill effects. On rare occasion you do get a dog that reacts negatively to the suture material, and that's apparently what happened here. But I don't know why she sued me. She didn't even bring the dog back." Stetzer argues that the surgery, which involves cutting a groove in the kneecap and using the stitches as a temporary support for a torn ligament, is a routine procedure that was performed properly.
As for the "inflated cost of the dog," kennel owner Gregg Docktor says he can't be held responsible for a congenital defect the business couldn't have foreseen a year before it became apparent. "Since I'm guaranteeing the dog anyway, if it had a problem from the beginning, why would I sell it?" he asks. "We probably spent more on the surgery than on the price of the dog to begin with." If Sowell really wants to add up all the freebies she got with her dog, Docktor adds, she'll find Spunky was a steal at $595. "I was a willing seller and she was a willing buyer. Nobody held a gun to her head. As far as the medical problems, that's between her and the vet."
Sowell does, however, carry to court a bit of ammunition against Merryfield Kennels. The Better Business Bureau of South Florida lists five complaints against the kennel in the past three years, and gives the establishment an "unsatisfactory rating" because it did not respond to a complaint called to its attention by the bureau.