Bamboozled December 18, 2017: Pet adoption agency shuttered during dispute over sick puppy’s vet bills

Eleventh Hour Rescue, a pet adoption and rescue agency in the Rockaway Townsquare Mall, was temporarily shut down late last week in the midst of a Bamboozled investigation, according to the township health officer.

The closing came after a complaint from Michele Nardino, a woman who adopted a puppy there in November.

The pup, Harley, became ill five days after the adoption and was later diagnosed with Parvovirus, described by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) as a “highly contagious virus that can affect all dogs, but unvaccinated dogs and puppies younger than four months old are the most at risk.”

Nardino’s complaint spurred the township to send two specialists to the facility, where “records reflected conditions of parvovirus among three additional dogs,” township health officer Peter Tabbot said.

The closure will continue “while staff provides thorough cleaning and disinfection to the areas where dogs and cats are held,” Tabbot said.

Tabbot said Eleventh Hour has been cooperating, and adoptions won’t restart until the Division of Health gives approval. While he can’t predict when the shop would reopen, he said best estimates are 10 to 14 days.

Eleventh Hour confirmed the closure, noting it was not cited and was not in violation of any health codes.

It said all dogs currently in that location were examined and deemed healthy.

But that wasn’t the case for Nardino’s puppy.

IN THE BEGINNING

Nardino’s daughter Taryn, 8, had been asking for a new dog since the family’s Pug died in 2015.

They went to the mall, and Taryn cried with joy when she learned the surprise.

That’s when they saw Wendy Wonderpaw, a 9-week-old Australian Cattle Dog/German Shepherd mix.

Michele Nardino and her daughter Taryn (8) visit Harley during her treatment for Parvovirus.

“She was the very first dog we saw and we fell in love with her instantly,” Nardino said. “She was in the arms of a volunteer, belly up, cuddled like a little baby.”

The family renamed the pup Harley.

On her fifth day at home, Harley stopped eating, wouldn’t drink and she vomited twice.

Nardino took Harley to the Totowa Animal Hospital that night, Monday, Nov. 20.

“The animal hospital immediately called Eleventh Hour Rescue but nobody answered the phone or called us back,” Nardino said.

Blood tests came back normal but the dog was ill, so she was admitted to get a proper diagnosis.

Nardino said she called and emailed Eleventh Hour on Tuesday and Wednesday, but no one responded to her messages.

“They repeated the blood test Wednesday because she was still sick,” Nardino said. “They also tested her stool for worms and parasites because she wasn’t getting better.”

The tests came back normal.

On Thursday — Thanksgiving — Nardino said Eleventh Hour’s manager finally responded via email.

Nardino explained what had happened, and then the manager spoke to the vet’s office.

They repeated blood tests again.

“Her white blood cell count dropped significantly by Friday,” Nardino said. “This is when the vet did the Parvovirus test.”

Taryn Nardino visits Harley at Totowa Animal Hospital. Harley is hooked up to an IV for treatment of Parvovirus.

It was positive.

The incubation period for the virus is from three to 14 days, according to multiple veterinary sources, while most Parvovirus deaths occur within 48 to 72 hours following the onset of clinical signs, AVMA said.

It seems Nardino got Harley to the vet just in time.

She was convinced the puppy contracted the virus at Eleventh Hour because she hadn’t been exposed to other dogs since the adoption.

Nardino continued conversations with the adoption group. She said Eleventh Hour’s president agreed to pay the vet bills from Friday — the day Parvovirus diagnosed — onward. But it wouldn’t pay the charges before the diagnosis, nor would it entertain refunding the $425 adoption fee.

“They stated the reason they won’t pay Monday through Thursday is because I should have gotten in touch with them first, prior to going to a vet,” Nardino said. “That would mean the dog would have needed to wait four days before receiving medical care, which would have resulted in death.”

Nardino shared her call log and email history with Eleventh Hour, proving she had been trying to contact the group all along.

Then the group changed its reasoning for why it wouldn’t pay.

“Next they said no because they didn’t agree to the tests run and the vet’s course of action,” Nardino said. “But the vet reached out to them from the very beginning. They are now saying the vet did unnecessary testing. But none of them went to veterinary school.”

Frustrated, Nardino contacted Bamboozled.

WHO SHOULD PAY?

We reviewed the adoption contract for Harley, Nardino’s phone and email records and the bills from the animal hospital.

The contract says it’s the customer’s responsibility to provide “regular medical care as necessary to keep the dog in good health.”

“While Eleventh Hour makes every effort to place only healthy animals, it cannot guarantee the health of any animal and may not be held responsible for any medical expenses that may be incurred after the date of adoption,” it says.

Taryn Nardino, 8, visits Harley, who was being treated for Parvovirus.

But given that the incubation period could be as long as 14 days, and Harley’s illness started five days after adoption, and given that Eleventh Hour agreed to pay all the bills following the diagnosis, what makes those first days in the hospital any different?

Who should pay?

Not necessarily Eleventh Hour, said Dennis Polizzi, the group’s attorney and Director of Kennel Operations.

He said Eleventh Hour is a non-profit, 100 percent no-kill dog and cat rescue that’s run mostly by volunteers. It saves and adopts more than 3,000 dogs per year, he said.

Polizzi said when Eleventh Hour’s kennel manager spoke to the hospital, she asked about a Parvo test because the puppy “presented with all the classic symptoms.”

Polizzi said after the test came back positive, Eleventh Hour was worried about “the misdiagnosis… specifically the fact that a Parvo test was not done until four days [after admission] and more expensive testing was performed.”

It requested the dog be transferred to one of its vets, but agreed to keep Harley at Totowa at Nardino’s insistence.

Michele Nardino and her daughter Taryn, 8, with Harley at Totowa Animal Hospital while Harley was treated for Parvovirus.

Polizzi said Eleventh Hour would pay for the dog’s care from Wednesday, rather than the initial promise of paying for care from Friday — an improvement over its initial offer.

We took Polizzi’s criticism of Harley’s treatment to Totowa Animal Hospital. It disagreed with Polizzi’s statements, saying the dog didn’t present with “classic symptoms” as she had only vomited twice, was active and didn’t have diarrhea. It denied performing unnecessary tests, saying it didn’t do the Parvo test sooner because nothing in the bloodwork indicated Parvo.

While the fight went on, Harley continued her recovery.

She went home after nine days in the hospital, racking up a total bill of $3,525.16 — and that was at the “rescue” rate.

We asked Polizzi for Eleventh Hour’s final payment decision. He said it would pay $2,385 direct to the vet, leaving Nardino with more than $1,100 in bills.

“We hope this resolves the issue and our position has not changed that the vet should have done a Parvo test sooner and that would have negated the other testing,” Polizzi said.

A few hours later, we learned the Rockaway health inspector was shutting it down.

Nardino isn’t happy about the bill, but she hopes other families and pets are spared what she and Harley went through.

“I saved some dogs today, made conditions better for animals, exposed the injustices and have advocated for future adopters to not receive any more sick animals,” Nardino said.

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