The Ethics Of Companion Animal Euthanasia
“Euthanasia” — typically used to describe the killing of an animal to avoid further suffering — is unavoidable in veterinary practice. Even when it’s the most compassionate option, it can lead to severe emotional and moral distress for veterinary professionals and animal guardians alike. The authors of this paper explore the different ethical issues involved with euthanasia, including when it should be used, how it should be done, and the consequences for everyone involved.
They begin by differentiating “necessary” from “unnecessary” euthanasia. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) dictates that the decision to euthanize an animal should be in the animal’s best interest and should induce a rapid, distress-free death. While euthanasia is usually the most humane option for animals who cannot be restored to health and who will suffer greatly as a result, some guardians request euthanasia for economic or convenience reasons. In these cases, the killing would not necessarily be in an animal’s best interest. For that reason, the authors argue that the term “euthanasia” would not apply.
Veterinarians are often put in the difficult position of having to recommend euthanasia based on limited information from a physical exam. While standardized quality-of-life scales can be used to assess an animal, the authors point out that such scales aren’t a perfect science. They argue that vets should always consider alternative treatment options before euthanasia, such as hospice care. Furthermore, when it comes to assessing an animal’s suffering, guardians’ views must be taken into account as much as the medical professional’s.
Moral stress — when professional obligations conflict with personal ethics — can weigh heavily on veterinarians. The authors cited one study showing that 93% of North American veterinarians had received what they felt was an inappropriate request for euthanasia. Another study found that 80% of small animal vets had declined at least one euthanasia request in their career. Moral stress can cause emotional dissonance, guilt, and detachment.
The AVMA guidelines suggest that veterinarians should advocate for their patients by speaking to guardians about alternatives to euthanasia. However, research has found that some veterinarians feel pressure from their employers to go along with a guardian’s request; others may not want to jeopardize their relationship with their client. To get around this, the authors recommend that practices put a blanket policy in place about declining euthanasia for moral reasons, thus making it easier for employees to handle such cases.
While research has not directly linked euthanasia with elevated suicide risk among veterinarians, their access to lethal substances may pose dangers to vulnerable personnel. The authors mention implementing safeguards around controlled substances as one way to protect staff. Despite the emotional toll, research suggests that some veterinarians experience compassion satisfaction when euthanasia alleviates an animal’s suffering.
According to the authors, some best practices for euthanasia are to focus on a calm and controlled procedure, which allows guardians to be present and ensures the animal experiences minimal pain and anxiety. Veterinary professionals should create Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and documentation to ensure consistency and quality, and to minimize errors. While veterinary appointments are often brief, the authors call for longer appointment times (45 – 60 minutes) for situations that may involve euthanasia. Finally, there needs to be more transparency around how animals are kept and transported after euthanasia.
Animal guardians also endure a heavy emotional burden when euthanizing a beloved companion. The role of veterinary professionals in providing emotional support, clear communication, and guidance during this process is crucial. The ability to validate the guardian’s decision, where appropriate, can help mitigate guilt and provide a sense of closure.
Companion animal euthanasia is an emotionally and ethically challenging process that affects both veterinary professionals and animal guardians. Because it’s such an important part of the human-animal bond, the authors emphasize the need for veterinary training and education — for example, the Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy trains vets on best practices in many aspects of euthanasia, from sedation techniques to navigating challenging situations. Ultimately, the goal should be to alleviate the hardships for everyone involved.