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Sunday, November 3, 2013

More Ethical Challenges With Euthanasia

Ryan emailed this to me....

As a second year vet student, one thing I often think about is euthanasia.  I want to make sure that when I perform a euthanasia it is for the right reasons.  In regards to convenience euthanasia, I was wondering how you deal with the clients that you turn away.  I've read many blog posts about euthanasia (both yours and others) and I have heard that owners often threaten to kill the animal themselves.  This seems like a very troubling moral dilemma.

So, I guess my question is how do you react to different types of euthanasia requests and the clients behind them?  If an owner gets belligerent or threatens to harm their animal do you call animal control?  Warn other veterinarians that this client might be coming?  And I know this varies by location, but what can animal control officers do to owners that threaten to kill their animals?  Is merely trying to get a convenience euthanasia done grounds for calling animal control?  

This is not an easy or black-and white issue as it deals with often subtle differences as well as possibly varying systems of morality.  I've been a vet for over 16 years now and have learned to treat each euthanasia situation as a separate incident, dealing with the emotions and reasons individually.  I can't predict a person's feelings or reactions before I go in the room, so I have to be a bit flexible in how I handle them.

Let's look at each question separately.

1.  "How do you react to different types of euthanasia requests and the clients behind them?"
On either side of the spectrum the decision is easy.  If a client wants euthanasia because their pet is in the process of dying I gladly agree.  If someone wants it because they decided they don't want their otherwise healthy and happy pet anymore, I quickly decline to perform the procedure.  But the further away from the extremes you get, the trickier the decision can get.  What about the healthy 6 month old golden retriever with a badly fractured leg that the owner cannot afford to treat?  Do we euthanize a very sweet, young, healthy dog with a serious but very treatable problem when the barrier is money?  After all, if treatment can't be done the pet is going to suffer horribly.  Or what about a completely healthy cat that has been showing increased aggression to a member of the family, resulting in a few visits to the doctor to treat bite wounds?  There are many difficult decisions and you have to take them one at a time and judge the merits of each one separately.

2.  "If an owner gets belligerent or threatens to harm their animal do you call animal control?"
In general, no.  I've had many people threaten to go home and just shoot their pet after I've refused to treat due to lack of funds or I've refused to euthanize because I didn't think it was justified.  I really believe that very few of those people every followed through and were using the threat as a way to try and guilt me into doing what they wanted.  If I actually witnessed the person being violent or abusive to their pet, I would first sternly warn them and if it continued I would absolutely call animal control.

3.  "Warn other veterinarians that this client might be coming?"
This is a stickier moral situation.  Another vet might have a different viewpoint than my own, though in my experience it actually ends up being the other way around (they feel as I do).  I'm not going to tell another vet what they should or should not do in a situation like this, since euthanizing a healthy pet isn't illegal.  Also, while most vets in an area at least know of each other, the degrees to which they regularly communicate or are friends varies greatly.

4.  "What can animal control officers do to owners who threaten to kill their animals?"
I'm not a lawyer or police officer (which is what animal control falls under), so I have incomplete knowledge of the laws.  I don't know that a mere threat to kill an animal is sufficient grounds to arrest someone and confiscate their pet.  I also don't believe it's illegal to kill your own pet or livestock, as long as it's done in a recognized humane way and the animal doesn't suffer.  After all, domestic animals are legally a special form of property, and it's not illegal to destroy your own couch or car.  The AVMA does recognize guns as being a humane method of euthanasia, as long as it's done in the proper way.  But for a more complete answer you'd have to talk to some one in that profession.

5.  "Is merely trying to get a convenience euthanasia done grounds for calling animal control?"
I firmly believe that the answer is "no".  Part of this answer goes back to the things I've discussed above.  But making the inquiry alone isn't illegal.  In fact, I WANT clients to ask about that if it's on their mind.  Having a conversation with them allows me the chance to give them other options and convince them that what they are seeking is the wrong thing.  If I called the police merely because someone asked about it I would be losing that chance to save a life.

Ryan, I hope that helps!


  1. Thanks for answering! I knew that animals are legally property, but I guess I never considered that means an owner has a legal right to kill his or her pets. That seems rather strange, though. I feel like if someone went to a petstore, bought a hundred dogs and then shot them all they could be brought under some charges. Or maybe I'm wrong. I've definitely learned to take a closer look at my states laws on animal welfare and abuse when I get into practice. And if someone is really insistent on shooting their pet I can at least ease suffering by advising on the AVMA guidelines for proper gunshot placement. This is definite a confusing but interesting issue.


  2. Most of the time, the bark of these people is much bigger than the bite. Just let them go their merry way.


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