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Euthanasia's legal side: Issues DVMs must consider
The moment of a pet's euthanasia nearly always is difficult for the owner and is troubling for the veterinarian.
The moment of a pet's euthanasia nearly always is difficult for the owner and is troubling for the veterinarian as well. While the doctor is placed in a role in which he or she must demonstrate compassion and share to an extent in the grief of the moment, often there are a number of other concerns swirling in the doctor's head.
The veterinarian must rapidly and thoughtfully review whether he/she provided sufficient information about possible further treatments. There are documents to be signed and, in some cases, an account receivable arising from prior treatment to be considered. And of course, there are the matters surrounding public-health compliance and the credibility of the owner presenting the pet for euthanasia.
Often these issues are more straightforward if the pet is being put to sleep after a long course of medical or surgical therapy. In that instance, the doctor and the staff know the circumstances leading to the decision.
Less clear-cut are the circumstances surrounding an ill pet that is brought in for euthanasia as a first-time visit or brought in for euthanasia while the animal is still completely healthy. Most complicated of all is when a pet is scheduled to be euthanized after having bitten or scratched someone.
As anyone who watches "Nancy Grace" or "Law and Order" probably is aware, lawyers are always throwing around the phrase, "known or should have known." This term implies the application of a concept referred to as "constructive knowledge."
Legal liability often attaches to an act or omission based on whether the person involved knew certain circumstances existed (such as faulty brakes on a car) prior to an outcome (such as a collision). If a new car fails to stop properly and kills someone, it probably will amount to an "accident" (as far as the driver is concerned) if the factory left off one of the brake pads. There was no way for the driver to have known.
On the other hand, if a person buys a junky "fixer-upper" and the same fatality occurs due to faulty brakes, that event would probably not be deemed an "accident." Rather, the death might be considered a negligent homicide on the part of the car's owner/driver because he "knew" the car had been sitting in a field for years and therefore "should have known" that the brakes likely were unreliable.
In short, the doctrine says that you can't avoid liability for acting imprudently simply by closing your eyes and hoping for the best.
Keeping this doctrine in mind, consider the circumstances where a client you have never seen before comes in to have his dog euthanized. He tells you that the dog has become aggressive with his kids but hasn't bitten anyone. The euthanasia form is signed, the bill paid and off goes the owner.
So here is a situation where the owner signed a form stating that the pet has not bitten anyone in the last two weeks. Yet he is in what seems to be a real hurry to put the dog down. Could there be more to the story? How much more questioning is the veterinarian obligated to undertake in the face of a signed authorization?
Is there something the vet should have "constructively known?" Was the owner wearing a bandage on his hand? Might there be a bite victim at home that Dad doesn't want to mention because of potential hassles from the health department or Child-Protective Services?
Maybe the owner was lying about some recent bite because he is violating a court-ordered pet confinement by having the dog at his home in the first place.
The constructive-knowledge doctrine is a slippery concept and at times can be hard to comply with.
In the example, perhaps more should be known about that dog's prior medical treatment. Has the dog's regular vet been bypassed because she knows that there has been a recent bite requiring reporting and/or confinement?
It is tough to know exactly how one should proceed in any individual case. I do know, though, that no veterinarian wants to be placed in a situation where an aggressive dog has been euthanized and cremated and authorities later claim that Doc "should have known" that the circumstances of the euthanasia were questionable.
I think the uncertainty faced by the doctor might be analogized in some respects to the dilemma faced by emergency-room physicians who suspect domestic abuse. It is hard to know whether extra probing is justified.
Probably a little extra time should be taken in questioning such owners. Maybe an attendant should be present. Obviously the simple solution would be to euthanize pets only in situations where the owner is well known to the practice. his, however, leaves open the question as to what alternative method of "disposal" the marginal pet owners will resort to if they cannot obtain a humane euthanasia.
None of these concerns may seem realistic to those readers who practice in upscale, urban communities. Nonetheless, I can tell you that the decision on whether to carry out a requested euthanization of a pet, (particularly dogs) is a routine dilemma for veterinarians practicing in less affluent urban settings and many rural regions.
Everybody knows that "ignorance of the law is no excuse." What most people don't know is that ignorance on the part of officials obligated to know the law is also no excuse — for you. Legal requirements surrounding rabies vaccinations, rabies exposure and animal euthanasia are complex, involve interlocking and overlapping jurisdictions and change frequently.
It might seem sensible to assume that the best way to know if your practice is in compliance with the rules on matters such as quarantine periods, documents releasing animals from rabies quarantine, human bite wound reporting and so on would be simply to call your health department and ask. You could reasonably figure that if you are told what the regulations are by the person at the local health agency, those are the rules you must follow.
Not to seem overly cynical, but I have to disagree. I have seen many instances where the person giving advice at the local health-department office either is not authorized to give answers (but does so anyway), or is so authorized and gives stale or obsolete information.
Further, some requirements, such as bite reporting, may be a matter of both state and local law. Simply because you have complied with the local regulation does not take away from any failure on your part to find out what the state rule is.
My advice in this regard is to take the same approach with public health personnel as Ronald Reagan used to take with the Russians. He suggested that it is always safest to "trust, but verify."
I believe that it is wisest to keep track of rabies regulations as reported in your state veterinary society newsletter. If you still have questions, contact the society's legislative representative. These folks usually are quite well versed in the regulatory area.
Finally, I believe that, when talking with local officials and asking questions, it is smart to write down everything. And you should get the representative's name and job title.
That way, if the advice is wrong and you act on it to your eventual legal detriment, at least you have some defense. Or at least you have a partner in crime to share the blame.
Dr. Allen is president of the Associates in Veterinary Law P.C., which provides legal and consulting services to veterinarians. Call (607) 754-1510 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org