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Comments on the dilemma in the January issue: ‘A corneal cat-astrophe?’
  1. Siobhan Mullan

Abstract

In the January issue, a cat with a corneal laceration and protruding iris tissues was brought into your practice. Despite its injuries, it did not seem to show any signs of discomfort. A colleague believed that, based on the Animal Welfare Act 2006, the only viable treatment choices were immediate surgery to repair the cornea, enucleation of the eye or, barring these two options, euthanasia to prevent unnecessary suffering. The owner could not afford to pay for any surgery (In Practice, January 2013, volume 35, pages 46-47). David Williams suggested that the first thing to evaluate was whether the cat was actually in pain, as its behaviour appeared normal, and decide how this might affect the Act's interpretation and the definition of ‘suffering’. Second, he wondered whether there was a fourth option available to the cat, taking into account that the ‘best’ treatment might entail a compromise between its well-being and the financial cost to its owner. Based on this, he suggested prescribing an oral, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory analgesic and a topical antibiotic that would allow the laceration to heal by itself – a treatment that the owner could afford. While admittedly not ideal, as the situation would need to be kept under review in case complications arose, the cat could still live a long life pain-free.

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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: Defining ‘gold standard’ treatment is central to David Williams' discussion and he suggests that this might be different for the different stakeholders in the dilemma – the owner, the vets and the cat.

Defining the cat's ‘gold standard’ as ‘a continued comfortable life’ appears to encompass an assumption that animals have an interest in living. This is an interesting and important point. We can all probably agree that the cat has an interest in avoiding suffering and much of veterinary practice is based on this understanding. Whether the cat values its own life, and, therefore, has an interest in continuing to live, is altogether a further step. For some, a human's interest in living, through valuing their own long-term life plans, is an important philosophical consideration. Although there are some problems with this argument, for example, why are long-term plans more valuable than short-term ones and how would we differentiate them anyway, the thwarting of these future life plans through death is seen as a substantial harm and often central to a right to life.

While some animals clearly carry out behaviours that have long-term effects (just think of a squirrel caching nuts for spring), it is less clear whether animals themselves value these long-term plans. In a paper considering whether animals have an interest in their continued life, Simmons (2009) discusses an alternative approach, whereby it is the ability to enjoy life experiences and to have ‘dispositional desires which animals continue to possess over time’ to experience enjoyable states that is valuable. Although his argument stops short of equating such desires with a right to life, it supports the idea that killing animals is a significant harm in itself, which in turn would have implications in many areas of veterinary surgery and animal use.

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