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Can Vet J. 2010 June; 51(6): 569–572.
PMCID: PMC2871350

Veterinary Medical Ethics

Ethical question of the month — June 2010

Opponents of animal welfare legislation emphasize that the market for animal products certified as welfare- friendly is small and cite this as evidence that real concern for animal welfare is quite low. Proponents of animal welfare legislation argue that “voting” at the checkout counter does not represent consumers’ actual ethical values. They argue that consumers cannot be expected to weigh each and every purchasing decision — from fuel, to clothing, to appliances, to food — from an ethical standpoint. It is preferable, they reason, to vote once for certain minimum welfare standards to become law so that from that point forward consumers can purchase products of animal origin without reading and comparing labels prior to each purchase. Is the checkout line truly an accurate representation of the ethical values of a consumer society?

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Responses to the case presented are welcome. Please limit your reply to approximately 50 words and forward along with your name and address to: Ethical Choices, c/o Dr. Tim Blackwell, Veterinary Science, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, 6484 Wellington Road 7, Unit 10, Elora, Ontario N0B 1S0; telephone: (519) 846-3413; fax: (519) 846-8178; e-mail:

Suggested ethical questions of the month are also welcome! All ethical questions or scenarios in the ethics column are based on actual events, which are changed, including names, locations, species, etc., to protect the confidentiality of the parties involved.

Ethical question of the month — March 2010

A young couple presents you with a 2-year-old Rottweiller cross for routine vaccinations. The woman has brought her cat to you in the past but the dog belongs to her new boyfriend. The woman’s young son is obviously afraid of the dog and you soon realize you will have to muzzle the dog in order to safely examine it and administer the vaccinations. The owner reports that his dog “doesn’t like vets much, but otherwise is fine.” On inquiring about the woman’s cat, you are told the boyfriend’s dog killed the cat shortly after he moved in. New legislation makes it mandatory for you to report cases of animal abuse; however, you have no reason to suspect this dog is being abused by the owner. You do, however, believe that the dog poses a very serious threat to both the woman and her son. Because you are concerned about client confidentiality and there is no sign of animal neglect or abuse, you are unsure of how to proceed. What is the right thing to do?


Under provincial child protection legislation in most (if not all) jurisdictions, anyone who has reasonable grounds to suspect that a child is in need of protection is required to report the information to Child Protection Services. The case described clearly falls into this category.

A less clear-cut case could involve an owner looking for veterinary assistance due to concerns about an aggressive dog, and there are children in the home. In providing behavioral counseling, it is obviously important that the veterinarian discuss risk management, document those discussions, and follow up with the client. If the owner is not responding in an appropriate manner, then concerns about danger to the child(ren) should be reported as above.

Dr. Alice Crook, Sir James Dunn Animal Welfare Centre, University of Prince Edward Island, 550 University Avenue, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island C1A 4P3.

An ethicist’s commentary on a veterinarian encountering a possibly very aggressive dog

This is a case whereby the rational adjudication is hampered by a lack of relevant information. There are at least three pieces of information that would be available to the veterinarian that are not shared with us. First of all, we are told that the young son is “obviously afraid of the dog,” but we are not told why. There are many different possibilities. One possibility is that the child is afraid of dogs in general. Another possibility is that the dog is rambunctious and jumps on the child. Another possibility is that the dog has gone after the child, or growled at him in a menacing fashion. Indeed, there are multiple other possibilities. Second, we are told that the dog killed the cat. Again we need to know the circumstances. Was the animal full-grown or a kitten? Did the cat attack the dog? Third, did the boyfriend encourage or allow the attack on the cat? Is the dog tied up for long periods of time? Does the boyfriend encourage and reward the dog’s aggression? Fourth, would the killing of the cat fall under any legislation in that jurisdiction? Further, we are told that the dog is a Rottweiler mix. Is social hysteria about Rottweilers relevant to the veterinarian’s fear? How familiar is the veterinarian with aggressive dog behavior? To what extent is the dog obedience-trained?

Since we have no idea of the answers to these questions, we must make some arbitrary assumptions. Let us assume that the dog killed the cat for no apparent reason. Let us further assume that the child has legitimate reasons to fear this particular dog. Let us also assume that the boyfriend does nothing to discourage the dog’s aggressive behavior. If all of our assumptions are correct, we may well have a recipe for tragedy and disaster. The question then becomes, How expert is the veterinarian in understanding dog behavior, and particularly aggressive behavior? Widespread beliefs to the contrary, all too many veterinarians receive little serious training in animal behavior and some receive no training at all. (I have often remarked that if as many animals were killed by a virus as are euthanized for behavior problems, organized veterinary medicine would launch a task force dedicated to that virus.)

So we can probably make the additional assumption that the veterinarian in question is relatively naïve regarding canine aggression. If that is the case, he or she is morally obliged to immediately refer this case to a person with genuine and significant expertise. Furthermore, were I the veterinarian, I would call in the boyfriend and the woman for an office discussion. In the course of that discussion, I would stress that they may well be living with a time bomb. I would insist, and enter into the medical record, that the dog should be placed in a boarding kennel until such time as a behavioral evaluation can be performed. The cost of boarding the dog should ensure that the people act quickly. If necessary, that is, if the veterinarian believes that the people are not taking the threat seriously, I would allude to notifying child protective services on the basis of the fact that the dog may represent a real danger to the child and, as a veterinarian, I am a mandatory reporter for potential danger to a child. I would also emphasize that the dog may well be fixable depending on the sort and source of aggression that we are dealing with, but that if he is not, he can perhaps be placed in a different situation, perhaps as a watchdog for a business.


Use of this article is limited to a single copy for personal study. Anyone interested in obtaining reprints should contact the CVMA office ( gro.vmca-amvc@nothguorbh) for additional copies or permission to use this material elsewhere.

Articles from The Canadian Veterinary Journal are provided here courtesy of Canadian Veterinary Medical Association