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Little nippers
  1. Paul Roger


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, ‘Little nippers’, was submitted and is discussed by Paul Roger. 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 ‘Follow-up fiasco’, which was published in the July/August issue of In Practice, appears on page 431.

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.

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Paul Roger worked in practice for 25 years and then left to form a veterinary consultancy, where he deals mainly with farm animal welfare and sheep health. He is an RCVS and European recognised specialist in sheep health and production, and a diplomate of the European College of Animal Welfare and Behavioural Medicine. He is the current president of the European College of Small Ruminant Health Management.

Little nippers

Your one-year-old border collie simply hasn't settled down in terms of temperament as you'd hoped. Not only does he have excessive energy, but he recently bit your nephew on the hand and the injury required a trip to the doctor. At first the puppy was kept away from the baby (and always played well with the older children) but, as a toddler, your nephew was soon able to chase and tug at the dog's tail, which, until the recent incident, had become a source of amusement at family get-togethers. Now your sister is angry and your spouse is upset at the thought of losing your pet. This is such a disappointment, as the puppy had been purchased specially from a shepherd, whose working dogs have a good reputation for temperament and reliability. ‘One bite and out’ is the usual refrain you give your clients, but should you follow through with it yourself?

Issues to consider

The first thing to consider is the dog's breeding. While the vet in the scenario did go through the process of finding a good breeder (which many dog owners still do not do), it seems that he might not have put enough thought into how appropriate the breed (or, indeed, that specific line of border collies) would be to his lifestyle. Border collies are known to be a highly intelligent and energetic breed. This is all the more true for dog's bred for working (rather than for showing or as pets). Therefore, seeking out a working-dog breeder with ‘a good reputation’ was actually probably, counterproductive in terms of picking a puppy with a suitable temperament as a pet.

The puppy's socialisation and training should also be considered. While the dog was exposed from a young age to the older children in the family, it had not been gradually introduced to the baby or trained to know what appropriate behaviour around young children should be. This was probably exacerbated by the family's initial amusement at the toddler's interaction with the dog, as neither the dog nor the child were corrected or stopped before the situation became critical.

Finally, while the vet may have been very capable of looking after many aspects of the dog's welfare (eg, vaccines, wormer, ectoparasiticides), the fact that it is described as having ‘excessive energy’ might mean that it is not receiving enough physical exercise or mental stimulation through training. A lack of stimulation could certainly have a negative impact on the dog's behaviour, making it much more reactive and unsettled.

Possible way forward

As veterinary surgeons, if we own pets, we should ensure that we raise them to the best of our ability and according to the best practices, which we advise our own clients to take. It is not good practice to advise clients to act in ways which we ourselves fail to do and it could have deleterious effects on the practice and for the profession. There should be certain areas where we provide best practice advice, which everyone should follow, and to neglect this is very poor professional practice.

In this scenario, specifically, it may be tempting, as the dog owner, to think that the situation was a one-off event, but it won't necessarily be seen like that by others. As vets, we must really aim to practice what we preach and avoid these pitfalls.

However, the vet's ‘one bite and out’ mantra may not actually be the best practice in such a situation and he should consider what other options might be open to dog owners (like him and his clients) after a dog has bitten someone. It would be foolish to ignore the potential for future problems, yet it would be unfair to rehome the dog in this situation without severe caveats and without addressing the issues discussed in the previous section.

At the first sign of poor behaviour or manifestation of anger/rage, it might be best to refer to a veterinary behaviourist for assessment or to consult a registered pet behaviour counsellor. This should be done after a thorough physical evaluation to eliminate any physical triggers for the unacceptable behaviour.

Likewise, it would be useful to have a standard protocol for approaching these cases in practice – one based on best practice, which reflects no discrepancy between the vet's professional and personal judgement. Such situations might not occur frequently but they do happen and vets will be approached by owners to help resolve them by advising on the best course of action. When drawing up this protocol one should consider what is best for the dog, what is best for the owner, as well as what is best for the person who was attacked or for others who might be at risk of being bitten in the future.

The question of leading by example is one which should be second nature. We are conscious of health and safety rules in the work place and on our rounds, where we practice sensible precautions with hygiene and biosecurity because it helps to deliver the messages we need to get across. This should also be the case for keeping and treating our own animals. Following best practice should minimise problems arising for us, but sometimes it's difficult to practise what we preach when workload increases or, for other reasons, priorities change within our lives. Our ethical approach to our personal lives and our animals is as important as maintaining good business ethics or complying with standards for professional conduct and is, ultimately, inseparable from them.

Any comments?

Readers with views to contribute on ‘Little nippers’ 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, September 19. Please limit contributions to 200 words.

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