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Euthanasia in a no-kill shelter
  1. Vanessa Ashall


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, ‘Euthanasia in a no-kill shelter’, was submitted and is discussed by Vanessa Ashall. 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 ‘Little nippers’, which was published in the September issue of In Practice, appears on page 479.

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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Vanessa Ashall graduated from Liverpool university in 2000. She spent three years in mixed practice before working as a small animal locum in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. She became the Named Veterinary Surgeon at the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition in 2004 and joined Pet Blood Bank in 2007. She holds the RCVS certificate in welfare science, ethics and law, as well as an MA in medical ethics and law. Her current position is Wellcome Trust clinical research fellow in ethics and society at the University of Nottingham.

Euthanasia in a no-kill shelter

You are a veterinary surgeon at a practice that provides the veterinary care for a local animal shelter. The shelter has always had a strict non-destruction policy and much of the shelter's fundraising is from the public, who specifically support this policy. Naturally, euthanasias are inevitable and have always been justified on medical or behavioural grounds. Recently, however, you have come under increasing pressure from the trustees on the board to euthanise healthy animals on the grounds that there is not enough capacity in the home. Previously, the shelter did not accept animals from the surrounding area but it is now under pressure to assume responsibility for that region. Where do your responsibilities lie and how should you proceed?

Issues to consider

The term euthanasia is defined as the killing of a being in order to help it, for example, through the alleviation of suffering. However, the phrase ‘euthanasia of healthy animals’ as described in this scenario could be misleading, as there is an important difference between killing a being for its own benefit and killing it because we choose to care for another animal in its place. The use of terms such as ‘killing’ and ‘destruction’ can cause discomfort in our society but it is important for vets, as a profession, to be accurate in our use of terms such as euthanasia, due to the important ethical distinctions that arise from killing for different reasons. If a vet is being asked to kill healthy animals and this is described as ‘euthanasia’, it could raise ethical concerns around transparency and trust.

Many in society routinely accept the killing of animals for a variety of reasons and this, in conjunction with the ways we breed and keep companion animals, frequently results in a situation where the killing of unwanted pets is an option which has to be considered. Putting aside the important and fundamental questions that relate to whether we should ever kill an animal, this scenario presents specific questions relating to how we choose which unwanted pets should live when we are bound by finite resources.

The non-destruction policy might attempt to protect a form of moral ‘right’ to life for animals. However, rights-based reasoning commonly encounters problems when the rights of different individuals collide. Even when an action is justified through appeals to individual rights it can sometimes require a balancing of several rights in terms of their importance or the rights of one individual over another. It would be hard to argue for the existence of such rights without also applying them to the animals which might be turned away and ultimately destroyed. This problem leads to questions regarding the boundaries of responsibility and whether the shelter should be responsible for protecting all unwanted animals in the region. Some might question protecting the rights of individual animals on a first-come-first-served basis and might instead attempt to balance the interests of one animal against another using different criteria, such as age or temperament.

A non-destruction policy might provide additional advantages that can indirectly benefit unwanted animals and also extend beyond them. For instance, having a non-destruction policy could result in increased public support, increased donations or improved staff morale. An alternative ethical justification might deem such advantages relevant when considering all the possible benefits and harms likely to impact all the individuals and groups involved. A calculation that accurately predicts maximum wellbeing in this way can be hard to perform and might need to be reviewed whenever outcomes change. In addition, such an approach could be criticised for possibly being unfair in the distribution of benefits, particularly if all the positive outcomes are experienced by a select group of individuals, and the consequences by another.

In summary, when the veterinarian considers the position of the trustees, it is important to remember that their policy could be based on a number of ethical justifications, each of which could be challenged in some way. In addition, policy decisions are usually not only based on ethical reasoning but can be informed by many factors, including financial, legal or public relations considerations.

Possible way forward

While it could be argued that it is not unethical for the shelter to review its policy in such circumstances it is not acceptable to knowingly deceive the public about its practices; specifically to claim there is a strict non-destruction policy if this is no longer true.

One possible way forward would be for the veterinarian to ask the trustees to clarify the principles that underpin their non-destruction policy and how they relate to the current situation. It is important that the ethical foundations of policy decisions are clearly justified. This then helps those individuals required to implement them to understand the reasoning behind the practical day-to-day decisions.

In this scenario the trustees arguably play the part of the animal's owner and are, therefore, legally entitled to request the killing of a healthy animal. In this frequently encountered situation and, in much of their daily work, vets are required to balance the competing needs of animals, owners and society. It is important that veterinary surgeons have an understanding of how and why institutions might use different ethical justifications to decide on a particular course of action. They also need a clear understanding of their own personal and professional ethical positions and how these positions can affect their working practice within certain professional settings.

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