You have recently installed webcams to monitor your patients in an isolation facility where human and animal contact must be kept to a minimum. It would be technically possible to allow owners to have access to the webcam images. Would this be a good thing to do?
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Susana Silva is a European Specialist in Veterinary Internal Medicine working at Vets Now Referrals in Swindon. Her main areas of interest are emergency and critical care, haematology, hepatology and gastroenterology.
Issues to consider
Over the past few decades the relationship between humans and their animals has changed greatly. Nowadays, pets are no longer the animals that herd the flock, guard the house and are used for hunting. Instead, they are regarded as family members. This very close relationship has had an impact on the expectations of animal owners when it comes to their pets' health care provider (ie, vets, veterinary nurses or boarding kennel staff), but it has also led to a greater level of commitment by owners to their pets' treatment.
On a day-to-day basis, vets encounter owners who are terrified by the prospect of their beloved pet becoming ill or dying, even in the face of what are seemingly minor injuries. It is therefore easily understandable that a person whose pet has to undergo medium- to long-term boarding in an isolation facility without the possibility of close interaction would be extremely concerned about their pet's quality of life and welfare while it is in care.
Whenever vets are faced with circumstances in which strict isolation of an animal is necessary (for example, a cat following the treatment of hyperthyroidism with radioactive iodine) it is vital to thoroughly discuss with the owners what type of care is going to be provided so as not to give the owners false expectations. Owners have to be given a clear picture of the situation, including the reason why isolation is required, the type and duration of treatment, other potential options, the cost, possible side effects or complications, and prognosis.
Given the duration of the treatment (which can sometimes be weeks to months), it is crucial that great care is taken in the development and design of the facilities themselves. All commodities should be installed to provide the animal with sufficient space and a stimulating environment. There should be appropriate lighting and a natural night/day cycle, as well as adequate toileting areas and toys. It is likely that most owners will request to visit the boarding space before their pet is admitted, and not being able to facilitate this could lead to mistrust.
The installation of webcams in isolation facilities allows continuous monitoring of the patients without the potential risks associated with close contact, such as pathogen exposure. Owners' access to the video images of their pets could have variable outcomes. While some owners might feel reassured to be able to observe their pet in the isolation facility, others could become anxious about a lack of normal behavioural patterns and, as a consequence, they might create undue problems for the vet. Overall, this would appear to outweigh the potential benefit to other owners.
Additionally, while it is our professional duty to care for our patients in the best way possible, in some exceptional circumstances, the usual protocols cannot be followed and owners might not necessarily appreciate this. For example, in some isolation facilities, vets and nurses are allowed a minimum period of time in the vicinity of the patient, with the period of time being inversely related to the distance that is kept from the pet. This explains why, for instance, a pet that needs medication and refuses to eat it as part of its food might have to be held briefly while the medication is administered. Owners seeing this through a live webcam may wrongly think that their pet is being mistreated. In reality, the vet is treating and caring for the animal the best way possible while balancing the risks to the patient and their own health.
Possible way forward
When owners are told that their pet cannot have frequent close contact with humans, in my experience, the level of apprehension decreases if the use of live webcams is mentioned. However, more often than not, people immediately ask to have access to the videos and try to debate the reasons why they should be allowed to see the footage. Perhaps a way of compromising on this delicate issue would be to not have a live stream, but instead to allow them to see a short video of a couple of minutes per day. Owners would then be able to see their pets, but it would be left to the vet's discretion which series of footage was most appropriate for each particular client. Whenever there is only partial access to images, there is the potential for vets to be accused by the owners of censoring; however, it should be made clear to the owners that, currently, vets are not legally obliged to allow access to such images.
Readers with views to contribute on ‘Owner access to isolation facility webcam images’ should e-mail them toso that they can be considered for publication in the next issue, or fax comments to 020 7383 6418. The deadline for receipt of comments is Monday, December 19. Please limit contributions to 200 words.
THIS series gives readers the opportunity to consider and contribute to discussion of some of the ethical dilemmas that can arise in veterinary practice. Each month, a case scenario is presented, followed by discussion of some of the issues involved. In addition, a possible way forward is suggested; however, there is rarely a cut-and-dried answer in such cases, and readers may wish to suggest an alternative approach. This month's dilemma, ‘Owner access to isolation facility webcam images’, is presented and discussed by Susana Silva. Readers with comments to contribute are invited to send them as soon as possible, so that they can be considered for publication in the next issue. Discussion of the dilemma ‘Mammary mass in an overweight dog’, which was published in the October issue of In Practice, appears on page 559.
The series is being coordinated by Siobhan Mullan, of the University of Bristol. It is hoped it will provide a framework that will help practices find solutions when facing similar dilemmas.
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