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When is euthanasia the best option for welfare?

09 July 2019, at 9:00am

Difficult questions were addressed at the 2019 Animal Welfare Foundation Discussion Forum in London

The event, which took place on 5 June 2019 in Westminster, began with a fantastic talk by Polly Taylor, a European Veterinary Specialist in Anaesthesia and Analgesia. Polly discussed the topic of overtreatment, particularly of companion animals, and posed the question “just because we can, does it mean we should?"

There are two important laws to consider in this discussion: the Veterinary Surgeons Act, which is for the benefit of the animal, and the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, which allows procedures if the benefit to others outweighs the harm to the animal. Vets are not exempt from the ASPA and shouldn’t be performing new or experimental treatments on animals without going through an official process.

Delegates discussed the best way to prioritise animal welfare in clinical practice
Delegates discussed the best way to prioritise animal welfare in clinical practice

The “best” treatment isn’t always the right treatment and Polly argued that “the profession is getting carried away with apparent clinical excellence”. As for new treatments, these are often lifesaving or are undertaken when there is “no alternative”, but they should always go through a peer review process as a “sanity check”, Polly said.

Ethical review ensures that the patients aren’t harmed along the way, including in those cases that are supposed to be for the benefit of the patient. To help make this process easier, Polly has been involved in the design of a “Veterinary Ethics Tool” (VET), which helps clinicians come to a decision by asking questions about the animal, the owner and the clinician.

She concluded by stating that “We are privileged to be able to apply euthanasia; this is not a failure.”

Can we meet the welfare needs of exotics?

As the key theme to the day, a debate about keeping exotic animals in captivity followed. Exotics vet Tariq Abou-Zhar was tasked with reasoning that it is possible to meet the welfare needs of these animals in captivity. He argued that there are human benefits and benefits to the animals and, if it were made illegal, there would inevitably remain a large number of exotic pets kept “underground”, which would only serve to heighten any welfare issues.

Zoo and wildlife vet Romain Pizzi explored the opposite case; he argued that a lack of poor welfare does not equal good welfare. Romain noted that in many cases, enrichment is provided to combat negative welfare, but that in a suitable environment, enrichment would not be required.

Mark Jones and Chris Draper from the Born Free Foundation continued the discussion, describing a lack of biological data for many exotic species. Mark reminded the audience that welfare must be considered throughout the entire supply chain, not just at the end destination. There is a lack of basic animal care advice, inappropriate holding conditions and inadequate legislation to protect exotic animals in trade, Chris summarised.

A member of the audience asked what happens if people come to your practice that aren’t capable of looking after the animal. What happens to the animal? Romain reiterated one of the messages from Polly’s talk earlier in the day: if we can’t move these animals into a high welfare situation, we can euthanise them. “We’re not trying to save everything, we’re trying to keep them well and if we can’t do that, we can euthanise them.”

Expanding on the topic, it was asked if, considering overtreatment from Polly’s talk, the veterinary profession is facilitating long-term conditions and suffering in exotics not suited to life as pets.

Tariq said that the overtreatment principles apply in the same way to exotic animals. “If you get a Harris hawk with a fractured tibiotarsus, put a couple of pegs in it and three weeks later it’s fixed, brilliant. If you’ve got to do something incredibly invasive, like chemotherapy, there are questions that we should ask in terms of how far we should go.” Chris argued that we need to be very conscious of the possibility of prolonging suffering of exotics in some circumstances by prolonging life in very poor welfare conditions.

There is a lot we don’t know about exotic species. We need to incorporate consideration of positive welfare into our assessments rather than focusing on whether basic needs are being met. One important point voiced during the discussion was that we must consider welfare throughout the supply chain, not just when they are being kept as pets.

Campaigns and education for the keeping sector, driven by the veterinary profession, could improve the welfare of exotic animals. Romain summarised the session by stating that it is possible to keep exotic animals to high welfare standards, but it is not easy, and we must consider the welfare needs of the individual animal throughout.