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Comments on the dilemma in the November/December issue: ‘Pest or patient?’
  1. Siobhan Mullan


The dilemma in the November/December issue concerned the morality of vaccinating and neutering foxes in an area where they are legally kept as pets, since they are often considered pests for preying on wildlife, farm animals and small pets, while potentially also acting as vectors for disease (In Practice, November/December 2013, volume 35, pages 614-615). Anne Fawcett and Sy Woon first commented on the meaning and application of the word ‘pest’, adding that it might be unjust to refuse veterinary treatment to a specific animal based purely on its species. They also suggested that the more pertinent question might be whether it is even appropriate to keep wild species, such as foxes, as pets. Finally, they reflected on the ethical dilemma within the framework of the four principles of non-maleficence, beneficence, justice and autonomy, and concluded that, based on these, it was not useful to think in terms of ‘pest versus pets’ but instead to simply treat the foxes as any other patient.

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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 writes: Anne Fawcett and Sy Woon's proposal to use the four principles of medical ethics to consider whether to treat the foxes set me thinking about the boundaries of application of these principles. Non-maleficence, beneficence, autonomy and justice all sound like good principles to respect, and indeed, despite some inevitable criticism, they are currently the dominant ethical model for medical clinicians in the UK and USA. They are most commonly and most easily applied to individual cases. (Although difficult cases, such as the often discussed refusal of blood transfusions by Jehovah's Witnesses, often require a compromise of some of the principles, for example, beneficence, in favour of others, for example, autonomy). Deciding when and how to compromise the principles is the hardest part of their application and the ethical reasoning behind this is the subject of debate, angst for clinicians involved and very often court cases.

In this situation with the foxes, the application of the principles allowed them to be treated as any other patient, particularly focusing on them as individuals – their welfare being a key influence factor on any decision.

The only one of the principles that explicitly brings in other stakeholders is justice, where in the healthcare setting, particularly in the UK, this can relate to the fair division of resources. Where the application of respect for the four principles of medical ethics might conflict with the interests of others a stakeholder analysis can help to identify the effect of a decision on all parties, and where moral principles fail to be respected. So, in this scenario, if the foxes were to be allowed to breed or have access to wildlife prey, then a stakeholder analysis could have been helpful to determine the right action.

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} We pay a small honorarium for contributions that are published.

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