They are our family, but…” – Companion animals, veterinary medicine, and our own ethical dilemmas

Kat Fiedler

Traditionally, doctors take the Hippocratic Oath as an affirmation of the ethical responsibility that they have towards their patients. According to the American Medical Association, one principle of medical ethics is that “[a] physician shall, while caring for a patient, regard responsibility to the patient as paramount.” What then are the duties of veterinarians, especially given the fact that animals are viewed as property under the law and often by society? To whom do the primary responsibilities of veterinarians lie?

Several years ago, my two pet rats became new patients at a veterinary office. As a part of their new patient paperwork, I was asked to select one of a handful of boxes describing how I viewed my pets and their possible treatment at the veterinary Fiedleroffice. These options included: I consider my pet to be part of my family and I would do anything for them; I consider my pet to be part of my family, but I have financial constraints; I am only willing to pay so much to treat my pet; and so on (all of these options are paraphrased from the actual text on the form). I asked a staff member what purpose my selection would serve. She responded that the veterinarian would consider my response in recommending treatment options for my pet. In other words, this exemplified the fact that I, the pet owner, am the client of the veterinarian, not the pet as the patient.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, one principle of veterinary medical ethics is that “[v]eterinarians should first consider the needs of the patient: to relieve disease suffering, or disability while minimizing pain or fear.” However, this consideration is not “paramount,” as the AMA classifies it. Rather, “[t]he choice of treatments or animal care should not be influenced by considerations other than the needs of the patient, the welfare of the client, and the safety or the public,” which can also be read as: the choice of treatment can also be influenced by the welfare of the client and the safety of the public. Furthermore, while physician-assisted death, also known as death with dignity, is only legal in three states (Oregon, Washington, and Vermont), “[h]umane euthanasia of animals is an ethical veterinary procedure.” In fact the procedure is used even when suffering could be alleviated through other veterinary procedures, but which may be beyond the means of the pet owner.

In several cities in the United States and the state of Rhode Island, legal efforts have been successful in transitioning pet ownership into pet guardianship, in an effort to provide animals more legal rights. Many have expressed concerns, including the AVMA, that guardians are legally required to act in the best interests of the whomever is under their care. The AVMA states that this could compromise the pet owner financially, and could even subject them to losing their pet if they do not act in the best interests of their pets. Namely, they are concerned over the loss of rights of the guardian, or the possible loss of “property.” We, thus, return to the classification of animals as property. How can we expand the rights of animals, even for those which we readily call family, if we remain stuck in this property-based view?

This conflict of classification and medical treatment options is just a small piece of broader national discourse over the scope of rights that should be afforded to animals. In particular, this conflict is even more complicated in reference to companion animals, which already do possess an expanded set of rights under animal cruelty laws, as opposed to agriculture animals for example, but for which we still struggle to establish boundaries. This conflict might not even exist with animals used in agriculture, sport, entertainment, etc. as much of society remains comfortable with limiting their rights to little or none. But companion animals exemplify the discord that remains at even the easiest, and most widely palatable, push towards the expansion of animal rights. For, “they are our family, but…”

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