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Are you positive? The fate of a shelter cat
  1. Siobhan Mullan


The dilemma in the November/December issue concerned a shelter cat that was suspected of being FIV-positive. Despite an initial negative test result, a subsequent test came out positive and the cat was euthanased as a result. However, it eventually seemed likely that the cat had received a single FIV vaccination while at the shelter, resulting in the positive test result (In Practice, November/December 2012, volume 34, pages 614-615). Based on this situation, Anne Fawcett and Juliana Brailey discussed factors to consider when deciding to euthanase a FIV-positive cat. The first was whether euthanasia of a FIV-positive cat (which could live as long as an uninfected cat) was ever ethically justifiable. The other factor was the place of tests that might give false positive results in making such decisions. They suggested that all cats should be tested for FIV at shelters before vaccination and that vaccination should be restricted to at-risk cats. In addition, vaccinated cats should be identified with a tag or microchip to ensure that vaccination status was not confused with natural infection. More generally, they noted that decisions about euthanasia must be based on solid diagnoses, suggesting that shelters could consider using low-cost confirmatory testing if necessary. They also suggested that shelters could look into rehoming FIV-positive cats to fully informed owners who commit to keeping their pets indoors.

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Siobhan Mullan is a research fellow at the University of Bristol with interests in practical welfare assessment and animal ethics. She holds the RCVS diploma in animal welfare science, ethics and law.

Siobhan Mullan comments: The case discussed by Anne Fawcett and Juliana Brailey raised some general issues about the role of test results in euthanasia decisions and policies. Estimating the likely outcomes of actions is a key component in all utilitarian models and the more accurately this can be done, the more likely it is that the right action will be taken. By learning from others in the USA, Australia and New Zealand who have already encountered ethical dilemmas associated with FIV vaccination, vets in European and other countries will be more likely to make better decisions if an FIV vaccine does become licensed.

Fawcett and Brailey quoted the authors of a policy guide for FIV management who, when using ‘a strict definition of euthanasia as an act of mercy for alleviating unremitting suffering’ found FIV-positivity alone could not justify euthanasia. This concept of a ‘strict definition of euthanasia’ made me realise that euthanasia is a word we use so frequently in relation to animals and one that I, certainly, have not really tried to define for myself.

The word derives from the Greek roots ‘eu’ meaning ‘good’ and ‘thanatos’ meaning ‘death’. In Greek mythology the god Thanatos is specifically associated with a gentle death and he is often alongside his twin brother Hypnos (sleep) and quite in contrast to his violent sisters.

The central question here is ‘what is good?’, and how does this help us to distinguish euthanasia from other forms of humane (non-violent, non-stressful) killing that we would not routinely talk about as euthanasia? In the strict definition above presumably the ‘good’ only occurs when the humane death is for the benefit of the animal concerned. I wonder whether it's helpful, or could even be harmful, to refer to other humane deaths as euthanasia where the ‘good’ may be either prevention of risk of harm, such as in the case of an FIV-positive cat, or even benefits to other associated parties, for example in the case of an aggressive dog.

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