Article Text


Pest or patient?
  1. Anne Fawcett and
  2. Sy Woon


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, ‘Pest or patient?’, was submitted by a reader and is presented and discussed by Anne Fawcett and Sy Woon. 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 ‘The cow that got up’, which was published in the October issue of In Practice, appears on page 615.

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.

Statistics from

Anne Fawcett graduated from the University of Sydney with a BA in philosophy in 2000, followed by BSc(Vet) and then a BVSc. She currently teaches veterinary ethics at the University of Sydney.

Sy Woon is a fourth year veterinary student at the University of Sydney. She completed a BSc(Vet) in 2012. She is president of the university's animal welfare society and social media coordinator for Sentient: the Veterinary Institute for Animal Ethics.

Pest or patient?

You were asked to vaccinate and de-sex foxes by a rescue group in an area where foxes are kept legally as pets, in private homes as well as sanctuary enclosures. While de-sexing and vaccination are not legal requirements, it was requested by the rescue group to avoid problems in case of escape or release. On hearing this, a senior colleague argued that such a stance is immoral, as foxes attack wildlife and chickens, not to mention pet rabbits (which are also treated at your clinic), and that you should stick to treating ‘pets, not pests’. What should you do?

Any comments?

Readers with views to contribute on ‘Pest or patient?’ should e-mail them to inpractice{at} so that they can be considered for publication in the next issue. The deadline for receipt of comments is Friday, December 15. Please limit contributions to 200 words.

Issues to consider

In some contexts, foxes are considered pests because they prey on native animals (some of which might be endangered species), as well as vulnerable pets, and they can also spread disease. This is the argument being used by your colleague to justify refusing to treat pet foxes; it has also been used by wildlife groups and members of the public.

However, in contexts where the keeping of a fox is not illegal, such a view raises a number of questions. First, the term ‘pest’ describes the relationship of a species to humans, but that identity is not an inherent property of the animal. For instance, in certain contexts, rabbits, cats and even domestic dogs can be considered pests. Yet it would be unusual for a veterinarian to refuse to treat these species. Therefore, if a vet has treated individual members of a species which has the potential for equivalently destructive effects on the environment, it would be inconsistent not to treat a fox in the same manner.

Similarly, it should be remembered that, in companion animal practice, the vet has an obligation to the individual patient and client, ahead of any obligation to a species population. Refusal to treat an animal based on its species alone, therefore, seems unjust.

In this case, you have been asked to vaccinate and de-sex foxes that will be kept as pets. Therefore, the more pertinent ethical question might be whether it is even appropriate to keep a non-domesticated species in a captive environment. If done inappropriately, it might actually do the individual animal harm or risk inadvertent release. By extension, if it is taken as given that keeping a fox as a pet could pose harm to it, one could argue that facilitating such a situation contradicts the principle of ‘first, do no harm’. Foremost, vets have an obligation to educate clients about appropriate husbandry, ensuring that physical and behavioural needs are met.

Possible way forward

This topic raises a number of important questions. To answer them, it is worth referring to the four principles, commonly used as a medical ethics framework: non-maleficence, beneficence, justice and autonomy (Mullan and Main 2001).

Non-maleficence is synonymous with the phrase ‘first do no harm’, but in reality there are few absolutely harmless veterinary interventions. Vaccinating and de-sexing the animals will reduce the harm they can cause as vectors of disease, predators and agents of population growth in the case of inadvertent release. Yet, as when treating any animal, it is important also to ensure that steps are taken to reduce or eliminate potential iatrogenic harm, for example, the harm of pain and inflammation associated with elective surgery (Yeates 2013).

Beneficence is the principle of promoting good and ensuring the positive welfare of an animal. Promoting the health of the animal and a positive human-animal bond may be beneficent. By proceeding with the requested treatment, a trusting relationship is established with the client, facilitating continued monitoring of the fox to ensure its welfare needs are addressed. This helps to foster productive discussions about husbandry requirements, including escape-proof housing and environmental enrichment.

Autonomy refers to the ability of humans or animals to be self-governing. Consideration of autonomy in this case means respecting the wishes of the client in deciding to keep and care for the fox. We need to consider whether foxes will be afforded adequate ‘freedom’ (for example, to express natural behaviours) if kept in a captive environment. Finally, the autonomy of your colleague is respected as well by engaging in a rational discussion and considering his or her perspective.

Justice pertains to acting in such a way as to secure the most fair and equitable outcome. In this situation, the outcome would be just in that all patients, regardless of species, are treated in an equal and fair manner.

Based on these four guiding principles, therefore, it wouldn't be useful to think in terms of a dichotomy of ‘pest versus pets’, but rather to go ahead and treat the foxes as one might any other patient.

What would be your approach to treating a pet fox?


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