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Can Vet J. 2016 November; 57(11): 1123–1126.
PMCID: PMC5081141

Ethical question of the month — November 2016

Ethical question of the month — November 2016

A veterinarian who recently joined your 4-person small animal practice is engaged in a discussion with a long-time client over euthanizing her 16-year-old cat. The cat has been losing weight (although the owner reports a normal appetite) over the last several months due to kidney failure. The cat responded moderately well to the interventions applied but is not expected to recover. Your new colleague believes it is time to euthanize the cat. The owner wishes to give the cat more time. The veterinarian emphasizes his responsibility to avoid unnecessary suffering and mentions his professional obligation to call in the humane society in cases in which owners allow their pets to suffer unnecessarily. The owner is shocked that the veterinarian would accuse her of treating her long-time companion inhumanely. She is certain that after 16 years with this animal that she is a better judge of its comfort and well-being than a veterinarian who has spent 15 minutes examining the cat and associated lab reports. You feel that you should intervene. How should you respond?

Submitted by Linda Chow, Ottawa, Ontario

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, 6486 E. Garafraxa, Townline, Belwood, Ontario N0B 1J0; 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 — August 2016

A good friend and strong animal advocate who works at the local animal shelter contacts you for your professional opinion. A middle-aged cross-bred dog that has been at the shelter for several weeks has been treated symptomatically on two occasions by the shelter veterinarian for anorexia and dehydration. On both occasions the dog improved following treatment with analgesics, vitamins, and intravenous fluids. The dog is considered very “adoptable” but interested parties have been warned that the dog may need “extra care.” Recently an interested couple was told that the dog may need some extra veterinary attention but that if they did not adopt the dog, it likely would be euthanized. The couple agreed to the adoption but two days later the dog was found dead in the kennel. A postmortem examination revealed lymphoma. Your friend would like your professional opinion on the handling of this case. You appreciate all the good work that these shelters do and you know that the shelter veterinarian discounts her services to help support the shelter. How should you respond?

A shelter veterinarian missing a tumor in a dog — A comment

The dog was destined to die or to be kept alive at great expense both to the shelter and to the dog. This is a case of something being sad, but without negligence. Shelters seek to make things better, not to make things perfect.

Gerald Goeree, DVM, MSc.

An ethicist’s commentary on a shelter veterinarian missing a tumor in a dog

The average citizen does not appreciate the extent to which animal shelters do society’s dirty work. While they are not killing as many unwanted animals as they were 30 years ago, they are still killing far too many. And shelter workers are experiencing massive amounts of “moral stress” based on the deplorable fact that though they go into humane work to help animals, and all too often they end up killing them. Just this morning, this atrocious state of affairs was brought home to me anew. As I entered the varsity weight room to do a workout, I noticed a beautiful shepherd-collie cross lying quietly in a corner. I approached the dog and was met by one of our athletes. “I just adopted him from the shelter,” he said. “He is 13 years old! His owners turned him in.” After complimenting him for being willing to adopt such an elderly animal, I once again found myself trying to imagine what kind of people would surrender a 13-year-old dog, an action that is equivalent to a death sentence save for the kindness of this extraordinary young man.

Early on in my career as an animal advocate, I learned to develop a considerable sense of empathy for those grossly underpaid people who work in shelters. In addition to the moral stress that they experience that ramifies in psychosomatic illness, substance abuse, marital difficulties, nightmares and other psychological problems, they are often vilified by society as “dog killers.” The same holds true for animal control officers, who wish nothing more than that their job become obsolete. And we are obliged to extend a similar degree of empathy to shelter veterinarians such as the one described in this case who provides some level of care to the animals in the shelter.

It is perhaps easy to fault the veterinarian in this case. After all, is not palpation of lymph nodes a basic part of a physical examination? And would not palpation of enlarged lymph nodes serve as a sign of potential lymphoma, at least demanding further diagnosis? On the other hand, how many shelter animals is this veterinarian responsible for? The number could easily be 1000. Surely several hundred! And how often can the veterinarian do a full-blown physical examination? Truly any veterinarian volunteering in such a situation is being set up for failure!

What then is the solution? Any jurisdiction capable of sustaining a shelter probably has a goodly number of veterinarians. If each veterinarian were to volunteer one day each month at the shelter checking the animals, much more comprehensive and better medicine could be done, and such thing as a lymphoma is less likely to be missed. If the community is a large one, a fundraiser could be held to acquire funding for a full-time veterinarian. If there is a veterinary school nearby, student volunteers can help to fill the lacuna in veterinary care. The key point is that the shelter is entitled to sufficient veterinary care to keep the animals healthy. If, as veterinarians have often claimed, they are the voice of animal welfare in society, they have a moral obligation to help assure that living things that society has treated like garbage enjoy at least minimally adequate healthcare. By so doing, they can help make society conscious of the moral travesty that shelters exist to address. It is necessary to create an ethos in society that attaches significant shame and opprobrium to relinquishing animals for trivial reasons, such as the dog no longer matches the color scheme, or it is too old to jog with me. (Unfortunately, these are real examples I have heard from shelter workers.)


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