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Pets and Ethics : Veterinarians Rethink Euthanasia and Other Common Practices

April 26, 1989|ALLAN PARACHINI | Times Staff Writer

It is a veterinarian's nightmare. A Los Angeles family appears at the vet's clinic with a healthy, well-behaved, 2-year-old German shepherd.

The husband has been transferred to New York City. The family will be moving from a Southern California suburban home with a yard to a cramped one-bedroom Manhattan apartment to which, they believe, the dog will be unable to adapt.

Will the veterinarian, the man and woman ask, get them out of this dilemma by putting the dog to sleep?

A Moral Conundrum

Although a hypothetical example, the couple's plight and their intended solution represent a moral conundrum veterinarians see with some regularity in their practices. And, although most are reluctant to discuss their personal experiences with what is known as "euthanasia for convenience," most agree there is steadily increasing attention to the ethical considerations of euthanasia, as well as discussion of the moral defensibility of such commonly accepted practices as ear trimming, tail docking and the declawing of cats.

To Jerrold Tannenbaum, a lawyer who teaches biomedical ethics at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in Boston, that the dilemma posed by this hypothetical example is even being widely and publicly discussed among veterinarians represents an important trend.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, said Dr. Walter Martin Jr., the Nashville-based president of the American Veterinary Medical Assn., chances were good that the German shepherd in question would not have lived out the day.

But today, Tannenbaum and Martin said, a new focus on bioethics--which has preoccupied human medicine for a generation--is transforming the way veterinarians are trained and the way they think.

As a result, Martin said, the family with the German shepherd could probably still find a veterinarian who would kill the dog. But in most urban areas, he said, their choices would be limited and the search prolonged. They might resort to leaving the dog at a pound, where it would likely be killed, if it was not adopted, simply because of the oversupply of pets in need of good homes.

Bonds Between Humans, Animals

Tannenbaum, who is married to a veterinarian and who has conducted research on the bond between humans and animals, has just taken a quiet, if prominently symbolic step, in ethical consciousness-raising: He has published a textbook on veterinary ethics that is widely viewed as the first work of its kind.

Many point out that this ethical ferment is occurring as the profession--influenced by such divergent factors as the animal rights movement and studies affirming the psychological importance of contact with animals--is reconsidering the traditional attitude that pets are property that humans own. "I see more people in the field admitting their feelings for animals and being sensitive to the fact that the animals may have some rights that didn't seem to exist before," said Dr. Victoria Voith, of the University of Pennsylvania veterinary school and an expert on animal behavior problems.

"The more we have studied animals and realized that they have what are apparently emotions and social groups and the ability to solve problems, we have realized that perhaps they're not as different from us as we were led to believe," Voith added.

Even basic veterinary nomenclature is being altered. Because the word "pet" implies the status of owned goods, the drift, in veterinary literature at least, is toward replacing the word with the term "companion animal." And today, said Dr. Jacob Antelyes, a New York veterinarian who has written a series of columns on the human element in veterinary practice in the Journal of the AVMA, veterinarians routinely refer to animal owners as their "clients" and to animals as their "patients" to emphasize the patient's rights, even though the human is paying the bill.

Tannenbaum, for one, was explaining the need for veterinarians "to have a deliberative process," when he interrupted the telephone interview to put down the receiver and assist the elderly, blind dog that lives with him and his wife as it tried to climb onto the couch.

Very Difficult Issues

"These are very difficult issues," Tannenbaum continued from his Boston home. "My general principle would be for the veterinarian to think about life, instead of death, and in all possible cases to try to save the life of every animal.

"If the dog is a puppy, it may be easier to place it in another home. But I am not comfortable about putting even an elderly dog down. The ethical obligation may even be stronger in the cases of older animals that have been with the family for a number of years. It would be like putting down a grandmother."

Tannenbaum contends that in many cases of requests for convenience euthanasia, "the client really wants to hear an objection."

"I advise veterinarians not to be bashful about expressing their concern for pets," he said. "If the veterinarian says, 'Do you really want to do this?' there is often a sigh of relief.

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