Veterinary Surgical Errors Expert Article

Surgical procedures are expensive relative to other types of veterinary services, and thus the financial implications of surgical errors can be substantial. During these procedures, veterinary medical errors may cause unintended results, including patient harm or death, financial loss, and negative impacts on the well-being of the pet owner and the veterinary team.

In this article, Veterinary Expert, Dr. McGee Leonard discusses the standard of care for preventing veterinary surgical errors.

Veterinary Surgical Error Expert Witness Investigations

Common Causes of Veterinary Surgical Errors

Compared to the practice of human medicine, there are no mandatory error reporting systems in veterinary medicine. Recent research shows that veterinary surgical procedures are high-risk for both the occurrence of errors, and the likelihood of litigation when an error occurs or is suspected. 

Causes of surgical errors in veterinary medicine are similar to those reported in human medicine, and may involve issues with personnel, equipment or facilities, or a combination of multiple factors. 

Human factors could include simple oversight, a lack of technical skills, or an insufficient knowledge base. These errors could relate to the surgeon performing the procedure, the surgical nursing staff, or the anesthesia team.

Surgical errors may also arise from communication problems within the surgical team or between the surgeon and the broader clinical staff, such as the overnight care team. Errors may arise from insufficient staffing or equipment failure. 

While veterinary professionals are trained to minimize errors, complications may arise even in well planned and executed surgical procedures. Effective communication regarding the potential for complications is an essential aspect of appropriate veterinary standards of care in surgical cases.

Response Procedures When Errors Do Occur

It is impossible to eliminate all errors and complications from medical practice, whether in human or veterinary medicine. How the medical team responds to errors, however, has been shown to positively affect the long-term outcome of the patient and diminish the likelihood of legal action.

Communication between the client and the veterinary team is important to obtain informed consent and keep the clients updated during these procedures. There are several steps that can be taken when an error occurs or is suspected, and the initial response should focus on minimizing further harm to the patient.

This could include:

  • Performing additional procedures
  • Extending hospitalization time
  • Or referring the patient to other specialists or facilities for ongoing care

Initial response to a possible medical error should also include immediate notification of the pet owner. Information should include the status of the pet, the nature of the complication, and the steps being taken to mitigate the outcome. 

Pet owners may be as impacted by the impression that the veterinarian is not being transparent about the problem as they are by the possible harm to their pet.

Post-Incident Investigation

Once the veterinary team addresses the needs of the patient and the client, it is imperative that the error is investigated internally.  Avoidable contributing factors should be identified and steps implemented to minimize the possibility of recurrence.

These could include:

  • The implementation of checklists or written protocols for specific procedures
  • Additional staff training
  • and/or evaluation of hospital resource allocation to address equipment or staffing needs

Forensic Investigation of Veterinary Surgical Errors

Expert investigation into veterinary surgical errors may require evaluation of the diagnostic and treatment plans that preceded the surgical procedure, the anesthetic protocols involved, and records of patient monitoring during and after the procedure. 

Communication records of interactions between the veterinary team and the client may be requested to determine whether appropriate informed consent was obtained, including whether the pet owner was properly informed of the possible risks of any surgical intervention. 

Surgical errors may ultimately lead to ongoing medical issues for the pet that require long-term care, and these veterinary records may also be necessary during a forensic investigation.

For more information, call us at 800.813.6736 or submit an inquiry.

Featured Experts

McGee Leonard, Veterinary Expert

McGee Leonard, DVM, DACVECC

Veterinary Expert
Dr. McGee Leonard is a board-certified specialist in veterinary emergency and critical care medicine with a decade of professional experience in veterinary science and practice. Dr. Leonard applies… read more.
Kenyon Conklin, Veterinary Expert

Kenyon Conklin, VMD

Veterinary Expert
Dr. Kenyon Conklin is a licensed veterinarian with over 20 years of experience in the private practice, corporate, military, and research sectors. She provides technical investigations, analysis,… read more.


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