One of the senior partners of your practice is examining a dog that has had a lumpectomy, which has became infected. The dog has been sedated and is drowsy, but on palpation of the wound it tries to bite the vet. The partner shouts at the dog and hits the cowering animal with his fist, close to the operation site. The nurses, assistants and two young people on work experience look on in horror, but nobody dares to say or do anything. The dog's lead is then handed over to a nurse to shut the animal in a kennel and the partner walks out. How should a witness to such an incident proceed?
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Peter Fordyce qualified from the Royal Veterinary College in 1981 and spent some time working in general practice, and as a named veterinary surgeon. He currently teaches first-opinion small animal practice in the Department of Veterinary Medicine at Cambridge. He holds a PhD and the RCVS certificate in animal welfare science, ethics and law.
Issues to consider
Two initial, related moral issues might be considered. First, should one ignore the incident or act in some way? Secondly, if one acts, should any actions be ‘in-house’, taking a paternalistic decision not to involve the owner, or to involve outside agencies, including the owner?
Using the language of virtue ethics, a failure to act when a vulnerable animal has been subjected to an apparently cruel and possibly illegal act of violence by a member of a ‘caring’ profession (with an implicit duty to protect the welfare of their patients) might be seen as condoning that action, pusillanimous and morally reprehensible. This situation may fall under several legislative acts. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 protects vertebrate animals from ‘unnecessary suffering’. The Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 regulates the behaviour of members of the profession, allowing for those considered by the disciplinary committee to have been convicted of a criminal offence that makes him/her unfit to practise, or to have been guilty of disgraceful conduct, to be suspended from the RCVS Register. Finally, the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 provides a degree of protection to employees who ‘whistle-blow’ under certain circumstances, including reporting of a criminal offence. As the Animal Welfare Act 2006 is a ‘common informers act’, anyone may bring a prosecution under the Act (although, in reality, this is usually undertaken by inspectors licensed under the Act, or the RSPCA/SSPCA). Similarly, a complaint to the RCVS may be made by any involved party. In this case, the employees who witnessed the incident are in a position to instigate action under both Acts, even though they are not the animal's owner.
The RCVS provides advice on our duties to our clients and patients, the likely behaviour that will result in disciplinary action being taken, as well as on whistle-blowing and the abuse of animals. However, all courses of action open to the employees carry with them some moral dilemmas and hazards. If action is taken, the potential adverse consequences for the partner's future career are significant. Irrespective of the outcome of any case against the principal and the legal protection afforded by the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, any employees who whistle-blow might find future employment within the practice, or elsewhere, difficult. However, failure to act might leave other patients of the practice vulnerable to physical abuse and not involving the client in the decision-making process might expose those involved in dealing with the case to an accusation of a cover-up.
Possible way forward
In terms of a professional failure of duty, the future potential consequences of not acting, and the character of behaviour demonstrated by both the assault on the dog and by acquiescence to the status quo, failure to act appears morally indefensible.
If action is to be taken, at least four issues might be considered:
■ What, if any, action should be taken to address the moral offence caused by the assault?
■ How should other animals be protected from such behaviour?
■ The proportionality of the response;
■ The ethical issues surrounding paternalism relating to the owner's involvement in the decision-making process.
The RCVS guidance on whistle-blowing provides a practical algorithmic approach to resolving the issue of the assault, with an implicit moral and legal framework to help resolve the first three points above. The guidance does not, however, address the issue of whether, or at what stage, information regarding the assault should be communicated to the client, who may take a different moral position from the RCVS (particularly with regard to the third point above), and may wish to instigate legal action under the Animal Welfare Act, irrespective of the views of the RCVS. It would therefore seem wise to discuss the issue of informing the client about the assault with the RCVS before contacting the client, particularly if the case was not proven against the partner, which might leave the employees open to a charge of defamation, and the legal and professional consequences that would follow.
Readers with views to contribute on ‘Violent vet’ 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 Friday, February 18. 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, ‘Violent vet’, is presented and discussed by Peter Fordyce. 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 ‘Farm cat with TB’, which was published in the January issue of In Practice, appears on page 95.
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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