Euthanasia Without Contact: An Ethical Veterinary Challenge
The COVID-19 outbreak impacted veterinary clinics around the world, causing practical problems such as safety equipment shortages, overbooked schedules, and reduced client contact to prevent disease spread. Because of these sudden and unexpected changes, the authors of this paper argue that many veterinarians were likely forced to grapple with unforeseen ethical challenges, too.
In this study, the researchers asked veterinarians around the world to explain, in their own words, the ethical concerns they dealt with during the early stages of the pandemic. They honed in on one in particular: low-contact and no-contact euthanasia. While veterinary best practice dictates that keeping guardians and their animals together during euthanasia is ideal, this wasn’t always possible during the COVID-19 outbreak because of increased safety protocols. As a result, the authors believe that many veterinarians, human clients, and animal patients may have suffered from increased stress and anxiety.
123 veterinary staff members (mainly women vets from the U.S., U.K., Australia, and Canada) weighed in on this issue through an online survey. In general, many respondents said that low- and no-contact euthanasia was the most common and/or most stressful ethical situation they had to deal with during the pandemic, largely because it excluded guardians from being present. Previous studies suggest that a “good death” for humans means having family or friends around them, and those who can’t be there for their dying loved one may suffer from increased mental strain. The authors argue that the same may be true for animal guardians excluded from the euthanasia process.
Switching to low- and no-contact euthanasia during the pandemic also required veterinarians to make an incredibly difficult choice: That is, balancing the safety of their staff, patients, and clients with the emotional needs of clients and their animals facing euthanasia. In other words, having clients present during euthanasia could have put other people in danger, whereas not doing so was likely very stressful (and perhaps even traumatic) for both the client and the animal patient. Indeed, previous studies have found that animals separated from their guardians at the vet show signs of increased stress and anxiety; at the same time, most veterinarians aim to avoid pain, fear, and distress for animals experiencing euthanasia. Some respondents breached the rules and allowed their clients to be present during euthanasia, but at least one person said they were reprimanded for doing so.
When offering euthanasia consultations, many respondents complained about the difficulties of upholding physical distancing requirements. For example, some veterinarians offered outdoor euthanasias or remote injections so guardians could be with their animals while also protecting staff members from disease spread, but this posed logistical challenges. Furthermore, research has found that when clients are able to rely on their veterinarians for comfort and advice during euthanasia, they are better able to cope with their grief. Therefore, having to limit the time that vets spent with family members was another ethical challenge respondents had to grapple with.
Finally, convincing someone to euthanize their companion animal is tragic enough as it is, but it becomes that much harder if they are not able to witness the veterinarian’s examination or if they know that they won’t be present during euthanasia. As a result, some respondents noted that clients delayed scheduling euthanasia consultations for their animals, which may not have been in the animals’ best interests.
The researchers highlight that during emergencies such as public health threats, veterinarians have to make difficult decisions and take into account all staff, clients, and patients. However, they also point out that separating animals and guardians during euthanasia causes excess distress for everyone involved. As a result, they recommend that no-contact euthanasia should be avoided wherever possible. Regarding low-contact euthanasia, it’s important to prepare veterinary team members to implement it in various circumstances and to make at least some accommodations for clients.
While it’s impossible to predict the next public health threat, veterinary clinics can establish an emergency euthanasia plan to ensure they’re mitigating safety risks while also meeting their patients’ and clients’ needs. Such emergency plans could include low-contact euthanasia protocols, instructions and communications materials for clients to follow, and other materials that would make the process more seamless for all involved. Finally, in cases where a veterinary clinic can’t offer full- or low-contact euthanasia, they should help their clients find other more accessible services such as home euthanasia.