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, ‘Rehoming a surrendered dog to its original owner’, was submitted and is discussed by Wesley Cheung and Anne Fawcett. 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.
The series is being coordinated by Steven McCulloch, senior lecturer in human animal studies at the Centre for Animal Welfare, University of Winchester. It aims to provide a framework that will help practising veterinarians find solutions when facing similar dilemmas.
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Wesley Cheung graduated from the University of Sydney in 2016. Having spent time in general practice as well as completing an emergency and critical care internship, he is now pursuing a shelter medicine specialty internship at Cornell University, USA.
Anne Fawcett teaches professional practice and veterinary ethics at the University of Sydney. She also works in companion animal practice and is a European veterinary specialist in animal welfare science, ethics and law.
Rehoming a surrendered dog to its original owner
While working at a shelter veterinary clinic you are presented with a four-year-old female shih tzu with severe lethargy. Physical examination, blood tests and abdominal ultrasound are consistent with a closed pyometra. You explain that emergency surgery is indicated and estimate that the costs will be around £600. The owner wants to go ahead with the surgery since it is in the best interest of their dog, but they cannot afford the treatment. As a result, the patient is unconditionally surrendered to the shelter. A few days after the surgery, when the patient has successfully recovered, the owner returns, claiming he felt pressured to surrender his dog and now wants her back. How should you proceed?
Issues to consider
The key stakeholders in this scenario are the patient, the owner, the veterinarian and the shelter. Other stakeholders include potential adopters and donors to the shelter. It is common for shelters to have a policy stipulating that animal surrender is unconditional. One reason for this is that it discourages people from surrendering an animal simply to avoid paying veterinary fees – which are instead borne by the shelter – then returning following the treatment to re-adopt their surrendered pet. It should be considered that a person unable to afford treatment of their pet in one instance, may not be able to do so in the future either.
Readers with views to contribute on ‘Rehoming a surrendered dog to its original owner’ should email them to email@example.com so that they can be considered for publication in the next issue. The deadline for receipt of comments is August 9, 2019. Please limit contributions to 200 words.
Some shelters may make exceptions to the policy if the owner’s circumstances have changed within days of surrendering; however, in most cases it is not in the best interest of the animal to return them to the original owner.
This dog has been treated, with costs borne by the shelter, and is recovering well. If she is rehomed quickly, to suitable owners living in an appropriate environment who can provide for her needs, including future veterinary care, this may prove a better outcome for the animal, as well as the shelter. However, in being admitted to the shelter she is separated from her natural surroundings, including her extended family. She is also confined and subjected to stressors which can lead to behavioural deterioration, especially with increased length of stay (Protopopova and others 2015).
It is common for owners of companion animals to view pets as part of the family, and therefore permanent surrender could lead to moral stress. Owners may be emotionally attached to their canine or feline companion, but feel that surrendering them is the only way to facilitate the animal receiving the necessary care (Weiss and others 2015).
A survey of UK shelter staff found that the majority felt their shelter did not have sufficient resources to deal with the continuous influx of animals (Stavisky and others 2017). Shelters have limited budgets and must ensure they operate sustainably. They must be mindful that decisions can set precedents which may be exploited; for example, encouraging other owners to surrender their animals simply to rescue them again after someone else has paid the veterinary bill.
Possible way forward
For this particular case, we have applied an analysis of cost and benefit.
If the owner feels that they were coerced or pressured into making the decision, this could have negative implications for the owner, as well as the shelter staff and the reputation of the shelter, which may ultimately impact potential donors and future adopters.
It would be helpful for the shelter team to meet with the former owner to discuss the basis of their policy and concerns about the future care of the animal. If they can be assured that the dog’s welfare would benefit by returning to its former owner perhaps an agreement can be made. For instance, an extended payment plan would allow the shelter to recoup costs, while avoiding setting a precedent by which others may avoid veterinary costs. This would benefit the dog, the former owner and the shelter.
Shelter staff could play an active role in the dog’s welfare by providing a lengthy discharge consultation and educating the owner about the ongoing needs of the dog. In addition, they could schedule a follow-up consultation after an agreed length of time.
More generally, surrender of an animal may be prevented with cost-managing solutions, such as implementing emergency payment plans (Weiss and others 2015). Fundraising, specifically to assist in such cases, may allow animals to return to their owners once they have recovered and therefore help reduce the overall shelter population.
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