‘He uses your fear and the love of your animal against you’

The Harrisonburg Emergency Veterinary Clinic is open on weekends. (Photo by Randi B. Hagi)

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

When Vanessa Scott’s 12-year-old black cat, Soggy Bottom, suddenly lost weight over the course of a few days, Scott became concerned that whatever was wrong couldn’t wait until her regular veterinarian’s office opened the next morning. So on a Sunday night in November 2016, she took Soggy to the Harrisonburg Emergency Veterinary Clinic. 

Scott said she agreed to pay about $800 for tests and treatment, and Soggy was diagnosed with kidney stones. When Scott went to pick up Soggy on Monday morning, she was given cranberry food and medication, according to court documents. The clinic’s owner, Dr. Ayman Salem, told Scott that he expected Soggy to improve, the documents say. 

Then Scott, who signed up to pay for the services through the third-party credit provider CareCredit, got the bill: $2,329.94. But Soggy didn’t improve. In fact, her condition soon worsened because she didn’t have kidney stones. Scott told The Citizen that her regular veterinarian said Soggy most likely had cancer. 

Scott would end up taking Harrisonburg Veterinary Emergency Clinic and Salem to the Harrisonburg/Rockingham General District Court, filing a civil case against him in May 2017.

This wasn’t the first time Salem’s veterinary practices have come under scrutiny. Over the years, Salem has been disciplined four times by the Virginia Board of Veterinary Medicine regarding situations at his Silver Spring Veterinary Clinic in Winchester. One of those cases resulted in his license being suspended for 11 months. 

In addition, the Better Business Bureau gives the Harrisonburg Veterinary Emergency Clinic a “D” rating in part because of the three complaints against the clinic in 2018 and 2019. The clinic didn’t respond to one and hasn’t resolved another, according to the bureau’s rating explanation

“He uses your fear and the love of your animal against you,” Scott, the former client, told The Citizen. “That’s what he did to me.”

Salem, reached by phone at the Harrisonburg clinic on a recent Friday evening, answered The Citizen’s questions with short responses.

“I think we have a good reputation,” he said, when asked if customers ever come to the clinic with concerns about his record.

But when measured by complaints and state Veterinary Board sanctions, Salem is an outlier. Each of the other veterinary practices within a 20-mile radius of Harrisonburg has an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau. And while the state board has sanctioned three other area veterinarian clinic employees over the last 15 years, all have been for procedural violations. No other Harrisonburg-area veterinarians has faced board scrutiny for medical care of animals. 

No local veterinarians agreed to be interviewed on the record for this article. But one veterinarian confirmed that his clinic did send out an email to all their clients shortly after the Harrisonburg Veterinary Emergency Clinic opened in 2016 advising them to avoid the practice. The veterinarian has recommended using the next-closest after-hours clinic – Veterinary Emergency Services in Verona – instead.

Only one other practice in Harrisonburg responded to The Citizen’s inquiries about Salem. A representative of that other practice declined to be interviewed, saying Salem had served cease-and-desist letters to clinics that had posted on Facebook or otherwise publicly advised their clients against using his clinic’s services.

State board discipline

The Harrisonburg Veterinary Emergency Clinic opened in 2016. Salem, who was first licensed to practice in Virginia in 2004, was already practicing in Winchester then. 

In 2005, he declawed two cats, named Velvet and Scooter, surgeries that would result in dangerous conditions for both cats and the state board’s first disciplinary action against Salem.

“Dr. Salem failed to remove the bone fragments and provide adequate post-operative care,” according to an order from the Board of Veterinary Medicine.

Velvet and Scooter’s paws didn’t heal properly after the procedure. Their owner took them to another veterinarian, who found they both “had developed an infection, necrotic tissue on their paws, and bone fragments from the onychectomy,” according to the board order. As a result of this case, in 2006, the board ordered Salem to complete courses in record-keeping and soft tissue surgery. 

Two years later, the board looked into three complaints filed about Salem’s Winchester practice, one of which the board found to be a legal violation. 

Salem, according to the order from that case, performed a spay procedure on a cat named Trixie. After the surgery, she became sick and didn’t urinate. Salem saw her again nine days after performing the surgery, and she was “anemic and dehydrated” because of hydronephrosis, which is when a kidney swells due to a build-up of urine. Trixie was euthanized. 

A necropsy revealed that Trixie’s right ureter — one of the ducts that carries urine from the kidney to the bladder — had been completely closed off, causing the kidney to fill with fluid. The board fined Salem $1,000 and required him to complete more courses in small animal soft tissue surgery and practice management.

The next case, from October 2012, resulted in Salem’s year-long suspension. The year before, Salem amputated the fractured leg of a cat named Tilly, “when other, less extreme measures were options,” including splinting, according to the order. In the two days leading up to the amputation, Tilly was left unattended at the clinic without pain medication, antibiotics, or having her fracture stabilized. Salem then “erred in amputating the leg at the hock,” the order says. It did not heal well, and Tilly’s entire leg later had to be amputated by another veterinarian.

Following Tilly’s case, the board placed Salem’s license on indefinite probation. He was ordered to stop performing surgeries unless board-supervised, ordered to take more courses in surgery, and fined $1,000. His license was reinstated without restriction in September of 2013 after he complied with the terms of his probation.

The most recent board ruling occurred in 2016. Salem failed to provide another veterinary clinic with treatment records from a surgery he performed on a dog in 2015 and was fined $250.

Salem twice declined to answer The Citizen’s questions about any changes he’s made in his veterinary practices following the board’s disciplinary actions.

“I think the state board has to know about that,” he said. “You don’t need to know anything about that.”

According to state board records starting in 2000, Salem is the only veterinarian currently practicing in Harrisonburg whom the board has disciplined for the outcome of medical procedures.

Of the 18 other veterinarians licensed to practice in the city’s seven clinics, three have faced sanctions: one for giving a controlled animal painkiller to a human, one for violations including improperly securing a medicine cabinet, and one for providing services without a facility permit. Each of these three veterinarians has only been disciplined one time. No other veterinarians currently practicing in Harrisonburg have had their licenses suspended by the board.

While the board receives about a couple hundred complaints each year and issues sanctions in some of them, taking the step of revoking a veterinary license is rare. 

Diane Powers, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Health Professions, wrote The Citizen in an email that case decisions, including revocations, are based on “the specific facts of an individual case to determine if a violation of applicable laws and regulations governing the practice of veterinary medicine occurred.” 

For more information, Powers directed The Citizen to the Virginia Department of Health Professions’ website, which includes a searchable database of veterinary medicine case decisions over the last 20 years. 

Since 2000, the board has revoked five licenses across the state, according to the database. Four lost their licenses between 2002-2018 because of issues related to alcohol or drugs, and a veterinary technician’s license was revoked in Roanoke in 2008 for failing to complete board-ordered continuing education.

What led to the court case

Vanessa Scott, the former client who accused Salem of misdiagnosing her cat Soggy Bottom, won a civil case against Salem in Harrisonburg in 2017. 

Scott said in a sworn statement to the court that after she dropped off Soggy on that Sunday night, Salem performed additional tests and treatments beyond what she had authorized.

When she returned to pick up 12-year-old Soggy before the clinic closed at 8 a.m. Monday, she received the bill in which the clinic charged her $1,500 beyond the approximately $800 she had agreed to pay.

“I was shocked, to say the least,” Scott told The Citizen, “I was just dumbstruck.” 

But, at the time, she had to get her son to school, so she thought, “I’ll deal with this later.” 

After dropping her son off, she took Soggy to her regular veterinarian, who didn’t see any indication of kidney stones. Instead, the vet told her it was “some sort of cancer,” Scott told The Citizen

 Soggy ended up having to be euthanized. Scott contacted a lawyer to represent her in court. 

One of Salem’s filings in defense claims Salem gave Scott an estimate “of the expense associated only with diagnostic testing” and denies that he told her “that the total bill for all services associated with the Cat’s treatment would be less than $800.”

However, the document confirms that the clinic charged “an additional $1,533,94” to Scott’s credit card at 12:32 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. 

Salem and the clinic also “further admit that these charges were not explicitly discussed with Plaintiff. Defendants assert that Plaintiff was aware that further treatment, as a result of the diagnostic testing, would incur additional costs,” the document says.  

In July 2017, the court awarded the total cost of the services for which Salem had charged. Scott said she considered filing a complaint with the state board, but a family emergency came up and she didn’t complete the process.

“I’ve had pets all but one year of my life. I’m 52 now,” Scott said. “I’ve had vets all over the U.S. I’ve had good vets and bad vets, but it’s never been like this.”

Salem told The Citizen he felt the court’s ruling was “unfair, but, you know, what we can do? I mean, we provide the service. She needs her money back, what can we say?”

‘I don’t know if I can face him again’

Another former client, Elizabeth Dart, said her trip to the Harrisonburg Veterinary Emergency clinic could have ended tragically. 

“It sickens me that this type of business is allowed to exist, and that this type of person is allowed to avoid repercussions for his disgusting actions,” Dart wrote in an email after being contacted by The Citizen.  

Ruby, Elizabeth Dart’s beagle, poses for a photo. (Photo provided by Elizabeth Dart)

She took her 8-year-old beagle Ruby to the Harrisonburg Veterinary Emergency Clinic in April 2018, after noticing blood and mucus in Ruby’s stool. 

“Scared for my dog’s health, I opted to take the dog to the vet in town and avoid the long trip to Verona,” Dart wrote. 

Dart said Salem told her Ruby had contracted a dangerous virus that could be passed to children and animals. She said Salem recommended Ruby would need to be kept for two additional nights for quarantine and intravenous fluids.

“The cost for this additional two night stay was estimated at around $2,000. Keep in mind that at this point I had already paid $75.00 to walk in the door, and $968.41 for diagnosis,” Dart wrote in the email to The Citizen. “I could not afford the additional $2,000, especially if the dog was as ill as Salem insisted. I informed him that I would need to take my dog home and put her down.” 

After debating with Salem about her decision to take Ruby home, she said Salem offered to give the dog an antibiotic shot that “might” help her live through the night. She said she agreed to the $125 shot and left with Ruby. 

The next day, Dart took Ruby to their regular veterinarian, who diagnosed Ruby with a “minor stomach bug,” Dart wrote. The veterinarian prescribed a short-term antibiotic and assured Dart that Ruby’s life was not in danger.

When asked about claims of misdiagnoses and prescribing unnecessary treatments, Salem said “the person who decides necessary or unnecessary is the vet, nobody else.”

But for Dart, that requires a level of trust. 

“Honestly, I don’t know if I could face him again and not end up in jail by the end of the day. That might seem extreme, but keep in mind that this man lied to me, put me in debt, and almost convinced me to shoot my dog in the head,” Dart said, “all over a minor stomach virus and his greed.”

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