Can refusing to euthanize a cat be an act of animal abuse? This question has been raised in very pointed way by a case which arose last summer in upstate New York, which pitted a pet owner against his cat’s veterinarian. According to a news story in the Albany Times Union, Gerard Sagliocca took his cat, Charmer II, to see the vet because the cat had stopped eating. The cat had been born with Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, and was becoming increasingly more ill.  

According to the vet, who is well respected in her area and well as nationally for her work on animal welfare issues, the FIV had developed into liver cancer and the cat had been allowed to degenerate to a point of misery. As she told reporters, “It was dying cell by cell… the only humane course of action was to euthanize.”

Despite the veterinarian’s plea to euthanize Charmer II then and there, Sagliocca chose to take his cat home. Not long after, the police arrived at Sagliocca’s door and took Charmer II back to the vet, where she was euthanized.

Sagliocca received a criminal summons for animal cruelty, which he vehemently denies. According to him, he is a cat lover, and Charmer II was very well cared for. She showed no outward signs of illness or distress—only refused to eat. According to the vet, Sagliocca committed animal abuse because of his failure to treat his cat’s painful and debilitating medical condition.

This case raises a couple of very important points and a few hard questions.

Point 1. I’m not sure why Gerard Sagliocca wanted to take Charmer II home rather than immediately euthanize her (we aren’t given this information in the reported news), but in general there are several very good reasons why an owner might choose not to immediately euthanize an animal, at the direction of a vet. A) An owner might want to get a second opinion, particularly since euthanasia is pretty final. B) An owner might want to pursue less draconian end-of-life treatments. Hospice care for animals is a rapidly growing field, and many resources are available that can allow animals good quality of life, despite terminal diagnosis. C) Being told that you should euthanize your companion animal is a hard pill to swallow. A pet owner may want time to process the decision, make final arrangements, spend a bit of time saying farewell to their friend, allow other animals in the house to say farewell, or allow friends and family to have a final visit. A refusal “right now” is not a blanket refusal.

Point 2. It both is and is not easy to “see” and agree upon animal suffering. In the case of many ill or dying animals, a room full of rational and caring people will be in complete agreement about whether an animal is suffering. But some situations are more complex. Animal pain is not always easy to recognize, for the untrained eye. So pet owners cannot be given full responsibility for assessing their animal’s level of suffering; we need to seek the input of professionals and trust their judgments. On the other hand, vets seeing an animal for the first time, or for a brief visit, are also not in an optimal position to assess an animal’s quality of life. It is the pet owner who knows the daily ups and downs, the animal’s individual history. We might hope that agony so severe as to suggest immediate euthanasia as the obviously humane course of action would be blatantly obvious. But I’m not sure things are so easy. For example, a cat with facial tumors might look absolutely horrible to us, yet may live—at least for a time—relatively happily and comfortably.

Point 3. One of the most important elements of a veterinary-client relationship is communication, and in the case of Sagliocca and his vet, something obviously went wrong. Veterinarians, for their part, receive relatively little training in how to deal empathically and effectively with end of life discussions. Pet owners, for their part, are sometimes in denial about the state of their beloved companions and will fail to “hear” bad news and fail, even, to see how miserable their animals have become.

I’m not sure there is an obvious right and wrong in the case of Charmer II, and it is hard to judge from outside, with only the reported facts at hand. Probably the vet overstepped her professional role; probably Sagliocca failed to provide adequate care. Still, the case raises important questions about how veterinarians and pet owners negotiate the decision to euthanize an animal. From the many conversations I’ve had with both vets and pet owners, there is often discomfort with how end of life care proceeds. Pet owners sometimes feel “coerced” into euthanizing before they feel comfortable with the decision—the vet makes them feel that euthanasia is the only humane choice, or hurries them into euthanizing sooner than they feel they should. And vets, for their part, are often uneasy with how long pet owners will allow an animal to deteriorate before deciding to euthanize, and yet feel that the decision to euthanize must remain firmly in the hands of the pet-owner and that they shouldn’t try to strongly influence the decision one way or another.

Some questions for my readers:

Question 1. Who ultimately should have decision-making power when it comes time to make end of life decisions for our animals? Vets or pet owners?

Question 2.  Is it ever ethical for a vet to euthanize an animal, for the sake of mercy, without the consent of the animal’s owner?

Question 3. When a pet owner asks a veterinarian for his or her opinion about whether euthanasia is appropriate, how strongly should the vet try to influence the decision?

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