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Decision making
Comments on the dilemma in the January issue: ‘Farm cat with TB’
  1. Siobhan Mullan

Abstract

The dilemma in the January issue concerned a pet cat that had been diagnosed with tuberculosis on a dairy farm (In Practice, January 2011, volume 33, pages 46–47). The cat was a much-loved pet of the farmer's young daughter. Martha Cannon commented that factors to be considered included the effect on the quality and quantity of the life of the cat and its owners, as well as the financial implications for the farm. While Mycobacterium bovis was a potentially zoonotic infection, the risk of spread from cats to humans appeared to be small, but was not non-existent. It was also unlikely that the cat would be a source of infection to the cattle. Treating the cat was not a straightforward option and the prognosis was unlikely to be good. Euthanasing the cat would affect family members in different ways and could involve sadness, grief, guilt or even relief. A possible way forward would be to make the owners aware of the small potential risk to their health from ongoing contact with the cat, and ensure they consider the practicalities of dosing their cat with several drugs twice daily, every day for six to 12 weeks. If the decision was made to opt for euthanasia, the young daughter should be involved in the discussion and must be made aware that the decision was reached in the cat's best interests to prevent future distress, rather than for financial reasons relating to the dairy herd.

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Siobhan Mullan is based at the University of Bristol. She holds the RCVS diploma in animal welfare science, ethics and law.

Siobhan Mullan comments: Mar- tha Cannon discussed the feelings of guilt that may be associated with a decision not to treat Suzie. Guilt is an emotional state that occurs when one believes (rightly or wrongly) that one has violated a moral code. ‘Unjustified’ euthanasia would therefore induce guilt in those who believe it to be unjustified. We all know guilt to be a pretty unpleasant emotion and often naturally do what we can to reduce it in ourselves and others.

One question is whether we have a duty to protect our clients from such negative guilty feelings. This might depend on the likely outcome of the guilt. For example, if a client presents their animal to you too late, it might be useful to tactfully harness any guilt to prevent this occurring again. However, if you thought that the situation was unlikely to arise in the future, then trying to assuage the guilt might be justified.

Incidentally, despite our an- thropomorphic experiences, it is not clear whether secondary emotions such as guilt can be felt by animals. One study investigating that familiar ‘guilty look’ shown by dogs, when having committed a misdemeanour (such as eating a biscuit when told not to) found no association between the guilty look and whether a dog had actually eaten the biscuit, but did find the guilty look related to the degree of scolding received by them from their owner (Horowitz 2009).

Have you faced a dilemma that you would like considered in a future instalment of Everyday Ethics? If so, e-mail a brief outline to inpractice{at}bva-edit.co.uk

Notes

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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