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Ethical dilemma: How a veterinarian should handle a case of puppy abuse


A longtime client admits to an episode of abuse, and a veterinarian weighs her options.

Mr. Davis presented his 4-month-old Labrador puppy with a laceration on the left cheek and scleral injection of the left eye. The puppy's left eye was also puffy and swollen. Dr. Ton saw the puppy in an emergency visit. She had treated Mr. Davis's puppy since he got him when the puppy was 8 weeks old. Over the years, Mr. Davis also had several other dogs that were Dr. Ton's patients.

Fortunately, the puppy responded well to symptomatic treatment. Mr. Davis told the doctor in confidence that he tripped over the dog and fell. He lost his temper, and in a fit of rage, he kicked his pet. He apologized and he vowed that it would never happen again. Dr. Ton admonished Mr. Davis for his behavior, and she advised him that she needed to recheck the dog in 48 hours to evaluate the wound status and ocular swelling. Mr. Davis agreed to return two days later.

In the veterinarian's mind this was clearly pet cruelty. As a veterinarian and animal lover, Dr. Ton felt she had to take steps to protect this puppy from any further abuse. At this point, she had a few options:

1. Report Mr. Davis to the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) and file a pet abuse complaint.

2. Ask Mr. Davis to surrender the puppy to ensure there would be no repetition of his abusive behavior.

3. Speak to Mr. Davis about his behavior and require that she examine the puppy every two weeks for the next two months. This would help her ensure that the puppy is safe, and give her the peace of mind that Mr. Davis is repentant and no longer abusive.

Puppy problems: A veterinarian takes on abuse-a case made worse as it involved a client, Mr. Davis (who is not pictured here) with a history at the clinic.

Immediately after seeing the puppy, Dr. Ton called a meeting with her veterinary team members to get their input on how she should handle the situation. A senior technical staff member mentioned that abusers are often repentant initially but can return to their abusive ways. Three other staff members said the well-being of the pup was a priority and the doctor needed to call the SPCA. Another team member mentioned that Mr. Davis had been a caring, longtime client without a previous history of any pet abuse. After all of the input, the decision was left to Dr. Ton, who was the clinician of record as well as the practice owner.

Dr. Ton appreciated her staff's input. She clearly felt that her decision was difficult because it involved mitigating circumstances. Mr. Davis lost control, and his dog was the victim. But history showed him to be an exemplary pet owner. He was honest in his admission and truly repentant. Dr. Ton felt that she could assist the puppy as well as Mr. Davis by seeing the dog on a regular basis during the next two months. Mr. Davis's agreement to present the dog on a regular basis reinforced Dr. Ton's decision to proceed in this fashion.

Dr. Rosenberg's response

Every clinician is presented with daily situations that are clearly not black or white. Should you do that exploratory surgery or should you wait? Are the seizures occurring frequently enough to start medication? These ultimate decisions are made in conjunction with feedback from the pet owner and in consultation with him or her.

Considering Mr. Davis's history of pet ownership and pet care coupled with his honesty and agreement to abide by a regular check-in schedule, Dr. Ton was confident that she would not have to take further action on behalf of the Davis puppy. Dr. Ton gathered information from the pet owner and the veterinary staff, and she relied on her years of clinical experience. Ultimately it was her decision, and I agree with her.

Get in touch

How would you handle this ethical dilemma? We would like to know. E-mail us at dvmnews@advanstar.com or post your thoughts at dvm360.com/community.

Dr. Marc Rosenberg is director of the Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, N.J. He is a member of the New Jersey Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners.

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