I have wanted to discuss this in a post for a while now. Unfortunately, there are many inflammatory posts circulating via social media that suggest charity veterinary practices use euthanasia in an “off the cuff” manner. I believe it would be beneficial to discuss some of the factors that are considered before a serious decision like euthanasia is made.
These are my own personal opinions that have been formed by working in a variety of environments and veterinary practices, in addition to knowledge I have obtained during my completion of the Level 3 Diploma in Veterinary Nursing and current studying of my BSc Top Up Degree in Veterinary Nursing. This is not to be perceived as veterinary advice nor is it to be interpreted as a replacement for any form of decision-making process. Each veterinarian will make their own decisions prior to undertaking or advising a treatment option including euthanasia.
Many veterinary charity organisations not only offer services for owned pets, but assist with cases of cruelty and neglect, abandoned pets and animals signed over into our care. Euthanasia is defined as “the painless assisted killing of a patient who is suffering”. Animals are euthanised when their pain cannot be controlled, or they are actively suffering, and euthanasia is the only option that will alleviate that suffering. This is usually a rare occurrence, and prior to making such a decision a number of factors are considered and the patient “as a whole” is taken into account. As mentioned, I have never seen a patient put to sleep without considering ALL individual circumstances which allows an informed decision to be made.
Initially the reason why an animal is brought for veterinary treatment has to be considered. Now when handling stray and unclaimed animals this can be critical for obvious reasons. Euthanising an animal that may belong to someone without their explicit consent can not only be distressing for both parties but can also lead to legal repercussions and slander. This is why every other ethical treatment option is exhausted prior to euthanasia. Usually if an animal is put to sleep shortly after arriving, it is because that was the only kind option available.
This is a really important factor to consider and one that causes a great deal of controversy. I can honestly say I have never witnessed a patient euthanised purely because of their age, however it is unrealistic and a poor approach to patient care to believe age should not be considered when approaching treatment. Incredibly young animals and geriatric animals often do not have the bodily reserves to tolerate invasive or extensive procedures, or even the capacity to heal in some instances. Considerations must always be made about the patient as an individual.
Another factor that causes a great deal of separation and debate. Again, depending on specific conditions and treatment options patient temperament and response to human interaction can be make it very difficult and sometimes impossible to manage a disease or ailment. We also have to consider whether the mental disposition of an animal makes it ethical to proceed with treatment when looking at that individual as a whole. If human contact causes excessive stress and duress with no progress being made towards desensitisation, that should be considered before proceeding with lengthy or extensive management.
Existing Health Conditions
This can affect treatment options as well as other criteria such as rehoming or release options. Pre-existing diseases can limit the long-term plan as well as the short term. For example, managing a cat non-invasive cat bite abscess on a feral tom cat is relatively easy. Wound management, antibiotics, neuter and hopefully release. Consider the options when they test positive for FIV? Release is now not an option due to the unethical spread of disease; the patient is fearful and incredibly stressed in a kennel environment, they will likely continue to be stressed and fearful as an indoor only pet cat. By solving one problem another is likely to arise. Do you condemn them to a life of unhappiness, knowingly release and continue the spread of a potentially fatal disease or euthanise what could be considered an otherwise “healthy” cat? I am purely playing devil’s advocate to emphasise my argument.
Unfortunately, this is something that must be considered before devoting time, money and resources into a case and patient. Assessing the animal as a whole is imperative as we must be realistic in our abilities in both treatment and rehoming. I don’t mean this as a death sentence as the organisation I work for rehomes many older and geriatric animals, with deformities, pre-existing conditions, lifelong treatment required etc; but in the same breath I have had owners sign over their lifelong pet who are ultimately at deaths door, and they would like to sign them over for rehoming. Realistically a 12-year-old collapsed dog who is unable to stand will not be re-home-able.
The reason I wrote this post was because I find a lot of uninformed arguments online regarding the “unnecessary killing” of many animals that come into the care of veterinary organisations. These are incredibly upsetting to read and can belittle the work of many dedicated veterinary staff. Education has helped change many of my own opinions, and if this helps one individual understand the moral and internal battles charity workers go through when coming to a decision, I’ll be happy.
Euthanasia is not a "tick box" exercise, and by no means am I suggesting that if an animal is highlighted in one of the areas above, they should be put to sleep. Animals are incredibly robust, they can and do overcompensate to avoid looking weak. I am advising that when you next hear of the "killer animal charity" euthanising a perfectly healthy cat/dog, to consider if that is accurate or not.
Chloe Mackintosh RVN
The Charity Vet Nurse
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