Vetting pet owners

Vets care for animals - but they should show respect for people, too.

Fiona Mason

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Last week saw the launch of the Draft Animal Welfare Bill, a move welcomed by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and others involved in animal protection and treatment.

One of the key proposals is to enable inspectors to take action in cases where an animal, though ‘not currently suffering, is being kept in such a way that suffering will probably occur at some future point’ (1). While, to some, this may suggest that inspectors have a unique ability to predict the future, the main thrust of the legislation is to give pet owners a ‘duty of care’.

This parallels the move towards an animal-centred approach in some sections of the veterinary profession. As a veterinary surgeon who has worked for a major veterinary charity, I am all too familiar with the sentiments held by certain sections of the animal welfare industry on this subject. There has been a shift in recent years towards an approach where the welfare of the animal is paramount and the wishes of the pet owner are secondary.

While this may seem like common sense, in reality there is a myriad of factors to consider when making clinical decisions. The choice of treatment, or even the choice between treatment and euthanasia, often depends on what the owner feels is appropriate and what they are able to cope with.

An owner may prefer to have their pet put to sleep rather than subject it to invasive tests, even if it has a treatable condition. Often there are deeply personal reasons for these decisions – they might have just lost a family member after a prolonged illness and don’t feel that they can watch the family dog go through a similar process. Alternatively, other owners are reluctant to have a pet put to sleep either for religious reasons, or perhaps because that animal is the last link they have with their deceased spouse.

I don’t consider that it is ever my place to pass moral judgements on their decisions; I understand that often I’m not aware of the many factors that underlie these very personal and difficult decisions.

Unfortunately, this is not the position taken by some vets. About a year ago, I saw a woman who had taken her elderly dog to another veterinary charity and had been horrified by the experience. She was already upset as her dog seemed very sick, but matters were made worse when she was not allowed to accompany her dog into the consulting room.

When a nurse eventually emerged it was only to ask her to sign a consent form for euthanasia. She refused and took her dog for a second opinion. Fortunately, after appropriate treatment and a bit of time the dog made a full recovery. What is shocking about this case is not the clinical decision (we often offer euthanasia as an option in older, very sick dogs) but the lack of respect for the person with the dog. The flipside of an animal-centred approach is often contempt for the people attached to the animals.

This same attitude surfaces in discussions about neglect. Commonly the neglect has been failure to get a suitable flea treatment, resulting in a dog that has excessively scratched itself and has patches of bald and sore skin exposed. The owner might well have tried pet shop or supermarket treatments which have had no effect, but have known that a trip to the vet for a good treatment was likely to set them back £35. I have heard some vets comment on the selfishness of pet owners for not going to a vet immediately. One pensioner followed the advice and then told us that he had been left with only £5 from his pension.

The fact that he might have to do without doesn’t enter into the equation for some in the animal protection industry. It’s possible, however, that some people have more pressing problems in their lives than the dog’s fleas.

The Draft Animal Welfare Bill seeks to codify this animal-centred attitude in law. It assumes that we all need codes of practice in order to behave responsibly in relation to keeping pets, and takes no account of differences in people’s circumstances or beliefs. An animal-centred approach has the potential to lead to an insensitive clinical approach, which rarely achieves compliance with treatment regimes. Accusing someone of cruelty or neglect doesn’t create a particularly good working relationship.

These proposals seem to express an element of contempt for pet owners.

Fiona Mason is a vet in south-east England.

Read on:

Ruining cats and dogs, by Stuart Derbyshire

(1) Launch of the Draft Animal Welfare Bill, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 14 July 2004

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