Dealing with dilemmas – animal welfare and ethics in practice

Posted on August 10, 2017 by Dorothy Mckeegan And James Yeates

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Veterinary professionals often have to make difficult decisions. In particular, we are all aware that veterinary work is ethically challenging and gives rise to morally difficult situations. We have all faced dilemmas where it is not clear which is the right course of action to take because competing actions or outcomes seem equally good, or equally bad. Should you treat or euthanise the feral cat presenting with a complex humeral fracture? Should you continue with palliative treatment of the geriatric arthritic dog that it is the elderly client’s only company?

Difficult questions

Such difficult questions arise from our natural concerns about animal quantity and/or quality of life and the potential conflicts between our duty of care to our patient, other animals, the client, and even members of the veterinary team. Sometimes it seems that a compromise of either the animal’s interests, professional responsibilities or your personal ethical stance is inevitable. It is well recognised that repeated exposure to challenging ethical conflicts may negatively affect our emotional well-being - the phenomenon of 'moral distress' will be familiar to many.

Usually our training and intelligence help us make good decisions. But sometimes we find it harder or stressful to make decisions, or to articulate our ethical views to owners and colleagues. Often we feel guilty or uncertain afterwards, and wonder if we made the right choice. Although practical reasoning is something we do very regularly (indeed, veterinary professionals are already experienced in making difficult decisions in complex, pressured situations), applying ethical concepts in veterinary work can seem daunting. An additional complication is that there are competing views surrounding animal ethics in our society. These give rise to disagreements about the answers to crucial questions about animals, such as whether they have ‘rights’ and whether an animal’s painless death is a moral problem. It is easy to imagine how differing moral positions on such issues can give rise to conflicts between veterinary professionals and their clients, or within veterinary teams.

Ethical reasoning

Although specific training in ethical reasoning is now offered in veterinary education, it is a relatively recent development, and many experienced vets have had no specific ethics tuition. It has been said that asking vets to engage in ethical reasoning without any formal training is like asking them to do surgery without telling them how to hold the tools. Nevertheless, training in ethical reasoning is not about telling you what to do. Instead, the goal is to equip professionals with the skills to consider their cases in helpful ways and make good decisions that they are comfortable with. In this sort of training we avoid technical ethical language, or citing famous philosophers. Instead we present ways you may think about ethical dilemmas, initially or after reflection, and consider how those views could be challenged, supported and ultimately how actions may be justified.

Make better decisions

We all want to make better decisions so we can achieve more, influence others and feel better - ethical skills can help to achieve this. So why not join us for Dealing with dilemmas – animal welfare and ethics in practice at BVA HQ on 12 October 2017. The course will cover ethical decision making in practice, practical assessment of animal welfare and quality of life and application of animal welfare legislation to welfare cases.

Dorothy McKeegan and James Yeates

Written by Dorothy McKeegan and James Yeates

Dorothy McKeegan studied Zoology at the University of Glasgow before completing an MSc in Applied Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare and a PhD at Edinburgh University. She is currently Senior Lecturer in the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine at the University of Glasgow, where she delivers an integrated teaching programme for animal welfare and ethics to veterinary and bioscience undergraduates. 

Dr James Yeates is Chief Veterinary Officer of the RSPCA, Honorary Fellow of the University of Fellow and Lecturer of the University of Bristol, Diplomate of the RCVS and Eropean College in Animal Welfare and Behavioural Medicine, and RCVS Registered Specialist in Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law