On a busy weekday morning about three years ago, Teresa Gilland took her fluffy Lhasa Apso, Sadie, to Petco in Fair Oaks for a shave and a haircut.
Hours later, her pet was dead from what a veterinarian described as heatstroke.
A Petco employee later told her, she said, that Sadie became ill while inside a "cage dryer," a device that blows air and sometimes heat onto wet dogs while they are confined in a kennel after their baths. Left unattended, the devices can be dangerous, veterinarians and groomers say.
Gilland appears to be one of the first people in the country to file a court challenge to use of the dryers, which have been the subject of rants and warnings on the Internet. Heartbroken following the loss of Sadie, she spent nearly two years searching for a lawyer willing to take her case. She found one in San Francisco, and has filed a civil lawsuit in Sacramento Superior Court charging wrongful death and negligence, and seeking unspecified monetary damages.
"I want Petco to stop using these machines, or at least post warnings to customers about them," said Gilland, who shared pictures of Sadie during a tearful interview at her Fair Oaks home. "This, for me, has been just devastating. I don't want it to happen to anyone else."
Petco has fired back, arguing in court papers that Gilland has failed to establish "a cause and effect relationship" between the company's alleged negligence and Sadie's death. It also calls Gilland's claims about Petco's actions "uncertain, ambiguous and unintelligible."
Terry Sorensen, an attorney representing Petco, declined to answer a reporter's questions about the company's use of dryers. "The case is in litigation, and this lady is trying to win it outside the courtroom," he said of Gilland.
Sadie, whom the family acquired as a puppy, was 6 years old when Gilland took her to Petco for her monthly grooming in July 2008. Other than being slightly overweight, Gilland said, the dog was in good health.
"She was like a little sister to my two daughters," who now are young adults, said Gilland. Sadie's photo is displayed among family pictures that cover a wall in the entryway to the Gilland home, and snapshots show her in Halloween costumes, under the Christmas tree and wearing a mortarboard upon her graduation from puppy school.
A few hours after Gilland dropped her off at Petco almost three years ago today, she said, she got a call from the store telling her that blood had been found in Sadie's grooming kennel. An employee was taking her to a veterinarian, and said Gilland should meet him there.
When she arrived with her husband, she found Sadie in a back kennel with an oxygen mask on her face. According to medical records from the pet clinic, Sadie was in "severe respiratory distress" from heatstroke. She was taken by ambulance to another facility, but her condition worsened and she was put to death, according to a report from the second hospital. Sadie died as a consequence of "severe heatstroke," veterinarian Steven Tarver concluded.
Gilland said she confronted Petco managers shortly after Sadie's death and found out the dog had been in a kennel with a dryer attached when she became ill; Gilland decided to research the devices. The Fair Oaks store allowed her to see the kennel, and she said she remembers seeing smears of blood and scratch marks on the inside.
She began contacting lawyers, but none was interested in pursuing a case, she said. Under California law, as in most other states, pets are considered property. That can create obstacles to collecting damages, Gilland learned, and discourages attorneys from filing lawsuits.
Gilland eventually found Christine Garcia, a lawyer whose specialty is animal litigation, to file suit. In subsequent mediation sessions, Petco would not agree to stop using cage dryers, said Garcia, so the case went forward.
Cage dryers have long been used in animal grooming. Some have heating elements; others blow air only. Some have temperature regulators and timers; others do not.
Internet discussion about cage dryers escalated three years ago, after TV personality Meredith Vieira highlighted the issue on the "Today" show following the death of her assistant's dog. A handful of cases have been reported around the country since.
In a brief interview with The Bee, Sorensen, the Petco attorney, declined to specify what types of dryers it uses on dogs. But Garcia, Gilland's attorney, said the store's dryer was capable of temperatures of 100 degrees and higher.
Groomers and veterinarians acknowledged cage dryers can be dangerous if unattended.
"The problem is, you put it on a dog in a crate and you get really busy and you forget," said Robert Milano, owner of Animal Crackers grooming salon in Vacaville.
Milano and several other groomers interviewed said they dry dogs by hand, even though it is more labor intensive to do so.
Kristin Shahan, owner of Doggie Day Spa in Sacramento, said she believes cage dryers "are fine," but many customers are afraid of them so she does not use them.
"I don't blame the dryer. I blame the person using it," Shahan said. "It would be pretty hard to kill a dog with a cage dryer unless you are really negligent."
Karl Jandrey, a UC Davis veterinarian whose specialty is emergency care, said he has never treated an animal for heatstroke caused by a cage dryer. "But, yes, it's possible," he said.
Heatstroke stems from exposure to "a relatively high temperature over a short period of time, or a not-so-high temperature over a long period of time," said Jandrey. It often is fatal, especially for dogs such as pugs and Boston terriers that are prone to breathing problems, he said.
A dog's internal temperature normally ranges between 100 and 102 degrees, said Jandrey. According to the veterinary reports on Sadie, her internal temperature was 107 when she arrived at the first pet clinic.
Garcia filed a claim on behalf of Gilland and Sadie last June. In December, Petco asked that it be dismissed. Earlier this month, a judge issued a preliminary ruling allowing Sadie's case to go forward. Hearings could be set as early as next month.