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Comments on the dilemma in the October issue: ‘The cow that got up’

Abstract

The dilemma in the October issue concerned an eight-year-old cow that became acutely recumbent a day after being admitted to hospital, but it remained alert and with a normal appetite. The cow had originally been brought in for treatment of chronic diarrhoea, but had briefly fallen while getting onto the trailer. Based on a poor prognosis, euthanasia was recommended for the recumbency, but the farmer insisted that it be managed supportively and, after five weeks, the cow eventually did rise without assistance and was discharged. (In Practice, October 2013, volume 35, pages 542-543). Fabienne Uehlinger commented that such unique situations are ‘outliers’, which don't fit neatly within the guidance on case management that is provided by formal evidence-based veterinary medicine. In cases where there was limited literature on the subject, as with alert cows with prolonged recumbency, she argued that vets should continue to rely on their knowledge and experience in order to critically consider the particular circumstances or each case. 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.

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THE suggestion that the farmer may have felt some responsibility for the cow's condition and that this in turn might have been important in their decision to want to continue treatment struck a chord with me. Many owners, rightly or wrongly, seem to feel guilty over something relating to their animal's condition or care, and it seems a natural response to want to put things right, perhaps by prolonging treatment against veterinary advice. An alternative response can sometimes be to appear hasty in wanting euthanasia, perhaps to be able to move on from the guilty feeling.

The role of emotion in judgement and decision-making has been studied frequently, concentrating mostly on anger, fear, sadness and happiness where distinct differences are found even between emotions of the same valence. For example, anger at the time of decision-making has been associated with an expectation of a more positive outcome and the choosing of riskier options. In contrast, people experiencing another negative emotion, fear, have a more pessimistic outlook on the options.

Although guilt has been studied far less often, a large meta-analysis found that guilt was the most influential emotion in decision-making, followed by disgust and sadness (Angie and others 2011). Guilty participants in iterations of one study were more likely to focus on negative, rather than positive options, even when the negative option was less explicitly stated than the positive one (Gangemi and Mancini 2007).

Most studies of emotion and decision-making present participants with decisions that are unrelated to the inducement of the emotional state. When the emotion is directly related to the decision that needs to be taken, as is commonly seen in veterinary practice, it might be imagined that the emotional effect is heightened. What isn't clear is whether the ‘best’ decisions are made under certain emotional states, positive or negative, and whether we should be aiming to allow our clients to make decisions only when they are in a relatively neutral emotional state.

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