Should a veterinarian end an animal's life if there are options for a bright future?
Dr. Hauser was a solo small animal practitioner in a suburban Midwestern community. He loved his work and he loved his patients. His particular passions were veterinary cardiology and the health and well-being of shelter animals. He had taken postgraduate training in cardiology and volunteered his services at the local shelter once a week.
Late on a Tuesday morning Mr. Howard came to see him with his 6-year-old Labrador Blackie. Blackie was his lovable self but was gaining some weight. Dr. Hauser examined him and thought the dog looked fine, but the mild lethargy and weight gain led him to order a blood profile. The following day he informed Mr. Howard that Blackie was just fine but that he had an underactive thyroid. He went on to explain that this was not unusual with Labs. The treatment was an inexpensive, small tablet that could be hidden in Blackie's food.
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Mr. Howard made an appointment three days later to bring Blackie back in and talk to Dr. Hauser about what he called some "personal issues." When the owner and dog arrived, Dr. Hauser again explained the hypothyroid condition he had discovered. But Mr. Howard replied that he'd recently had some financial reversals. He was no longer working and had to leave his home. Blackie had become an added expense that he could no longer afford, nor could he provide an alternate home for him.
Dr. Hauser suggested placing Blackie in temporary foster care until Mr. Howard got back on his feet. If that wasn't possible, adoption options such as the local Lab rescue or the county humane shelter would very likely lead to Blackie finding a new home.
Mr. Howard was distraught. He'd had this dog since he was a pup. He admittedly was very "mentally stressed." But he did not feel that Blackie would thrive in any other household. The dog was set in his ways. Mr. Howard said that after much soul-searching he'd decided to have Blackie put to sleep, rather than put him through the trauma of parting with his owner and his home.
Dr. Hauser was torn. Blackie was a vibrant Lab with a minor thyroid problem. As a result of his shelter efforts and networking within the shelter community, Dr. Hauser was sure he could relocate Blackie to a caring home. He spoke at length with Mr. Howard and told him that in spite of his anxieties, euthanasia was not the way to part with this pet. Mr. Howard listened but told Dr. Hauser that Blackie was his dog, his mind was made up and that euthanasia was a humane option. He added that he expected his decision be honored.
Dr. Hauser was suffering a crisis of conscience. His role as a veterinarian was to help pets in need and relieve any suffering when possible. He thought that in Blackie's case, he would be euthanizing an essentially healthy dog with a bright future. He knew if he refused that Mr. Howard would very likely just go down the road to another veterinarian who would respect his wishes and perform the euthanasia.
Dr. Hauser decided to tell Mr. Howard that he could not in good conscience put Blackie to sleep. He sympathized with Mr. Howard's position but felt it did not warrant euthanizing a pet before exploring other viable options. Mr. Howard was distressed. He said he was not asking the doctor to do anything illegal but simply to respect his decision and humanely put his pet to sleep. He took Blackie and left the clinic.
Did Dr. Hauser make the right decision in this situation?
Unfortunately, this is not a unique situation. Many clinicians are faced with a similar dilemma every day. In this case Blackie was going to be euthanized, just not by Dr. Hauser.
In all honesty, there is no right or wrong action in this situation. Another veterinarian may have felt that the owner was resigned to the euthanasia and that it was not fair to put Blackie through the stress of being taken to another strange clinic or shelter for the inevitable. In that case, humane euthanasia would be appropriate.
Speaking personally, I won't euthanize a pet with a potential viable option for relocation. I have to sleep at night. On the other hand, I will euthanize a pet that is reasonably healthy but has no options for a caring home. My goal is to see that my patients are not frightened and not in pain. In addition, I try to see that these animals are not put in a position where they will be frightened or in pain.
Dr. Hauser made the decision that he could live with. I feel that if Blackie's owner was determined to euthanize his dog and I had exhausted every option, I would have put Blackie to sleep rather than expose him to a fate that I could not caringly oversee.
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.