Veterinary Ethics: Dogs Must Get the Very Best Care Possible

Trying to do the "right" thing when animals are suffering can be very difficult.

Posted Jan 16, 2019

The need for reflective practice in veterinary medicine

I recently read a Ph.D. thesis by Dr. Craig B. Merow, an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Temple University. I'm very interested in the general topic and "hot field" of veterinary ethics, and while I'm not a veterinarian or a philosopher, I'm always eager to learn more about what they are thinking about how to provide the very best care and to do the "right" thing for their nonhuman clients. (For detailed discussions about veterinary ethics also see Dr. Jessica Pierce's The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Lives and Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets and "Veterinary Ethics: Life & Death Decisions in the Real World.") I had a lot of questions after reading Dr. Merow's thesis and was pleased that he could take the time to answer my queries about his work. Our interview went as follows.

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Puppy at a veterinarian's office
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I enjoyed reading through your thesis titled "A Moral Framework for the Practice of Companion Canine Veterinary Medicine." Can you please tell readers why you wrote on this topic and why you focus on veterinarians? After all, don't they always have the best interests of their canine and other clients in mind and in heart?

"...veterinary ethics is far more complicated than human medical ethics."

I chose to explore veterinary ethics for two reasons: First, veterinarians suffer from what has been described as “moral stress.” One of the principal causes of moral stress is the frequency with which veterinarians are asked to “euthanize” healthy animals for the convenience of their owners, owners who are moving to a pet-free apartment complex, for example. Many small animal veterinarians, however, feel that taking the life of healthy companion animals is inconsistent with their dedication to healing and the moral convictions that led them to pursue a career in veterinary medicine. [For more discussion see "Should Zoo Workers and Veterinarians Kill Healthy Animals?"] At a veterinary conference session on dealing with client grief, a practicing veterinarian exclaimed, “I know how to deal with client grief, … what I need to know is how to deal with my grief. I went into veterinary medicine to care for animals, and I am consistently asked to kill them for trivial reasons.” Moral stress results from the conflict between the job veterinarians are asked to do and their considered moral judgements. The usual recommendations for stress relief—exercise, relaxation techniques, time management—won’t work.  Solving the problem of moral stress necessarily involves an analysis of fundamental moral issues—just what bioethicists like to do.

Secondly, veterinary ethics is far more complicated than human medical ethics. In most human medical situations, the interaction is between a physician and her patient. Veterinary practice involves a patient, a client, and the medical clinician. The three-way interaction between these parties is complicated by the fact that the one paying the bill, and thus the one who needs to be satisfied with the service (the client), is not the one being treated.  What’s more, in human medicine, most agree that “life is sacred” and that everything that can be done for the patient should be done. In contrast, the moral status of the patient in veterinary medicine is not clear. Legally, the patient is the personal property of the client to do with what he pleases as long, of course, as he does not treat his property in a “cruel” manner. “Euthanizing” a healthy companion animal by firing a bullet into her brain is not “cruel” according to law. The AVMA’s “Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals” even includes a diagram to help with bullet placement. At the same time, many veterinarians and dog owners consider companion canines to be integral, contributing members of families and mixed species communities, with a moral status completely different from most articles of personal property. There are plenty of sticky conceptual puzzles to be teased apart here—enough for many dissertations!

While I agree that most small animal vets would like to put the interests of their patients first, they are often prevented from doing so by economic limitations, the complexities of the patient/client/clinician relationship, and the legal and ethical regulations under which they work.

How does economics prevent well-meaning veterinarians from providing quality care for their patients?

Many owners of sick or injured dogs are forced to resort to euthanasia because they simply do not have the money to treat their companions. It is extremely stressful for a veterinary clinician to kill a dog she knows she could save with a modest investment of time and medical resources. It is also heart-wrenching for owners who have to choose between medical treatment for their dog and food for their children. Many veterinarians advocate “pet insurance” as a way to ensure that animals get the medical treatment they need.

And how about the legal and ethical framework within which veterinary medicine operates?

Historically, veterinary medicine has been primarily concerned about animals with commercial value: first horses used for transportation and as draft animals, and later animals raised for human consumption. Today, many dog owners and the veterinarians who care for them consider dogs to be family members who, like other family members, have intrinsic value; they believe that dogs have value apart from the interests of their owners. This shift in the way in which dogs are valued was dramatically illustrated by the refusal of many residents of New Orleans to evacuate during Hurricane Katrina without their dogs and cats who were not permitted on evacuation buses. These people were willing to risk their lives for companion animals with little if any economic value. Because of the way companion animals are currently valued, the governing laws and ethical guidelines for the practice of veterinary medicine developed in earlier centuries are inconsistent with the moral consideration many believe dogs and cats deserve. If the value of a cow is to produce milk, and the animal requires veterinary treatment that is more expensive than her likely remaining milk production, then the economically astute farmer “puts the animal down” to minimizes his losses. That line of reasoning, of course, would be totally unacceptable if applied to the farmer’s human child. The question is, what is acceptable for a companion animal, an animal deliberately bred to form strong, emotional attachments to her human owner, and who is dependent on that owner for her wellbeing? I argue that we need new laws and ethical guidelines that reflect the role that companion animals currently play in our families and communities. (One may also question whether or not this line of reasoning is appropriate for dairy cows. I have not addressed this question. Any attempt to question the moral status of food animals encounters serious resistance from agricultural interests and those who cannot conceive of life without bacon. I’m willing to quietly eat my rice and beans and mouth off about companion animals. I think I have a better chance of making a difference if I address this limited population using a relationship-based argument that does not apply to food animals.)

In your thesis you write: "In this dissertation I construct and defend a moral framework for the care and medical treatment of companion canines that recognizes and accommodates the moral implications of the relationships among companion canines, their owners, the communities in which they live, and the veterinary clinicians who care for them." Can you please explain what this means so that people who are not philosophers can reflect on your important messages?

"...adopting a dog is more like adopting a child than purchasing an inanimate object and, as such, generates a similar list of obligations."

While some philosophers, such as the utilitarian Peter Singer, argue that morality needs to be impartial, others such as Donna Haraway, argue that “the content of any obligation is dependent on the thick and dynamic particularities of relationships-in-progress.” In other words: relationships generate responsibilities. When one adopts a child, for example, one enters into a relationship that entails a long list of responsibilities, responsibilities that one does not have toward other equally deserving children. Being partial is part of what it means to be a parent! The relationship generates obligations. I argue that adopting a dog is more like adopting a child than purchasing an inanimate object and, as such, generates a similar list of obligations.

You also write: "The specification of these obligations is explored using a modified capabilities approach." Can you please say more on this topic and explain what the "modified capabilities approach" entails. I agree with you, and have written that it is a "double-cross" when people abuse dogs and other companion animals because of the unique relationship they have with these beings. 

"I argue that dog owners have a moral responsibility not only to feed, house, and exercise their companions, but also to attend to their social, emotional, and intellectual needs."

The economist Amartya Sen developed the “capabilities approach” to replace gross national product (GNP) as a measure of the well-being of residents of developing countries. He argued that the well-being of the citizens of a nation cannot be captured by a single metric. Sen claimed that well-being could be better understood by what people were able to “do or be,” that is, on their capabilities or functionings. Their well-being may be related to their country’s economic output, but ultimately depends on a host of factors: whether or not their physical needs for housing, food, and medical care are met, and whether they can vote, express themselves freely, and worship as they choose. This idea was expanded by philosopher Martha Nussbaum into a partial theory of justice: a just society is one that ensures at least a minimal level of capabilities for their members. I adopted this multidimensional approach and developed a list of well-being promoting interests for companion canines that reflect the functionings they need to live a good life. I argue that dog owners have a moral responsibility not only to feed, house, and exercise their companions, but also to attend to their social, emotional, and intellectual needs. A Labrador retriever who is well fed, housed, and exercised, but spends endless hours confined to a crate, garage, or utility room, is an abused dog.

“Vulnerable.” That is a word that you often use when discussing dogs. What do you mean by vulnerable and why is this important?

When a human adopts a companion canine, the dog becomes completely dependent on the human. The dog’s nutritional status; protection from the elements; medical care; and opportunities for exercise, social interaction, and mental stimulation are largely determined by the owner. As the more powerful member in the relationship, the human has an obligation to assist the weaker partner. One only needs to watch a dog who is chained in a backyard day after day to understand the degree to which dogs are at the mercy of their human caretakers. [See Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible.]

Are you hopeful that things will get better for homed dogs?

Yes, I am. I think, however, that change will come slowly and only as a result of the dedicated efforts of biologists, animal activists, bioethicists, veterinarians, and morally sophisticated dog owners. There is much work to be done. I think it is vital that a new category of property be created—what I have called “custodial property”—to distinguish companion animals from the other articles of property that people buy, use, and discard. Three types of property are recognized by U. S. law: personal property, real property, and intellectual property. Currently, dogs are classified as personal property, as are hats, pencils and lawn mowers. While we have recognized that the laws concerning the property rights to a song one has written need to be different from the laws concerning one’s hat, because songs and hats are very different sorts of things, we have failed to recognize that hats and dogs are sufficiently different to justify different property types. A new category of property would help focus attention on the moral differences between companion animals and other articles of personal property, and encourage legislation supporting the needs of companion animals. I would like to see our representatives in Congress get interested in writing the needed legislation.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

In an important sense, we are all philosophers; we don’t have a choice. We all have to answer fundamental philosophical questions in order to make personal, practical decisions about right and wrong, religion, law, government, and our place in the universe.

Questions in animal ethics include: What kind of thing is a companion canine? Is one’s dog more like one’s hat or more like an adopted child? Is it morally permissible to raise sentient animals for human consumption? Would a virtuous person seek entertainment at the expense of animals? Some people may not consciously consider these questions but, none-the-less, their behavior reflects particular answers to them: they crate their retriever for ten hours a day while at work or they make arrangements for his care while they are away, they eat meat or they do not, they attend circuses and rodeos and visit zoos or they do not. We all need to consider the philosophical issues underlying our decisions, make careful, considered judgments, and act accordingly. We all need to be philosophers.

Fortunately, one doesn’t have to read technical, philosophical journals to be exposed to the fundamental moral questions, and to encounter different points of view and their justifications. I would like to suggest that interested readers begin by revisiting what for many of them was a childhood favorite: Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s story of the boy and the fox in his beloved classic The Little Prince: “For me you’re only a little boy just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need for you. And you have no need for me. For you, I’m only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you.”

This story captures the heart of my relationships-generate–responsibilities argument. Thousands of years ago Homo sapiens and Canis lupus began a long, fruitful, responsibility-laden relationship. [See "Dumping the Dog Domestication Dump Theory Once and For All" and references therein.] I think it is time for us to recognize and live up to our responsibilities. Think about it.

Thanks so much, Craig, for taking the time to answer these questions clearly so that non-philosophers can understand your position on the importance and responsibility for humans to provide the very best veterinary care to dogs (and, of course, other companion animals). I can't wait to see your thesis published so that many people will be able to read it. You raise numerous important issues and I wholeheartedly agree that practicing veterinary medicine is can be very trying and highly stressful, and that when a person chooses to share their homes and their hearts with a companion animal, it is a huge responsibility. While it may work for some people, it might not be the best choice for others. (See "Are You Really Sure You Want to Share Your Life With a Dog?")

Dogs matter because they're alive, have intrinsic value, and are feeling beings. (See "Why Dogs Matter.") Most dogs don't get what they need from their or other humans and we can always do more for them. Providing the highest quality veterinary care and putting the dog's best interests first and foremost are critical. (See "Dogs Want and Need Much More Than They Usually Get From Us," "Companion Animals Need Much More Than We Give Them," Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. and references therein.)  I look forward to on-going discussions about veterinary ethics and other topics that center on giving dogs and all companion animals the very best lives possible. We're obliged to do so and it's the least we can do for these sentient beings for whom we are their one and only lifeline.