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When is removal the right thing to do?

by
01 May 2016, at 1:00am

Periscope continues the series of reflections on issues of current concern.

ONE OF THE RESPONSES FROM THE RSPCA to the 2014 Wooler Review is the proposal that vets should attend all RSPCA actions to seize suspected abused animals, rather than just provide a “certificate of suffering” by telephone. A sensible approach to the problem, one might assume.

But am I the only vet reeling somewhat at the unspoken truth that vets have previously issued these certificates on the basis of something reported to them over the phone by an unqualified and unregulated third party? Is this really what has been going on? If it is, it surely goes against the first of the RCVS’ 12 Principles of Certification. Why has no one been hauled over the coals regarding this before?

The RSPCA has had some bad press over the last few years with regard to over-zealous prosecution and I have certainly read some cases that went to court that made me shudder. Like the 13-year-old schoolgirl who was prosecuted for (legally) going rabbiting with her dog – the sort of thing my own kids were encouraged to do in order to keep them out of mischief and in the fresh air.

There is of course no denying that animal cruelty occurs and that when this is deliberate and of a certain severity then enforcement action should be taken. Such action may require moving the animal to a “place of safety” and vets have a key role to play in certifying the need for this. But to have done this previously on the say-so of an RSPCA inspector, somewhat overdressed in a black uniform closely resembling that of the police, was surely inviting censure from the courts if not the RCVS itself. 

I would also caution those vets asked by the RSPCA in the future to examine an animal and certify that its suffering warrants its immediate removal from its owner to only comply with this in all but the most severe and obvious cases.

If you are going to remove an animal from any situation, you need to be certain it is going to something that is better. I’m not convinced this can be guaranteed in many, perhaps the majority, of cases.

Many of the cases I’ve read about involving the removal of animals have been for incredibly trivial things that were causing the sort of suffering that can occur as a relatively normal part of living and as a result of changing circumstances and the occurrence of “events”. In my view, the reality of pet-owning means that probably most pets lead less than perfect lives. “But that’s appalling,” I hear you say. To which I would reply that I suspect most people (including most children) lead less than perfect lives too.

Life after all is a moveable feast with changing circumstances and goalposts, and some degree of “suffering”, be it physical or emotional, is a normal part of being alive for animals and humans alike. I dare to suggest that many dogs owned by vets and vet nurses spend far too long shut in a cage/spare kennel at the vet practice when their owners are working. 

Is this grounds for removing them from their owners to alleviate their suffering? My view is most definitely “no” but I am led to believe that in the past the RSPCA has removed animals for lesser offences.

A real dilemma

Removal of animals from their owners presents those “making the call” with a real dilemma. If we look specifically at dogs, many of them will lead “chaotic” lives, much like their owners. They may be fed and exercised somewhat erratically and they may visit the vet less than the optimum amount. Yet they may be reasonably healthy and “adore” their owner like no other.

To remove them on the basis of some relatively trivial deficiency in the care provided and with no way of explaining to the dog why this is necessary may create an “emotional” stress to the animal far in excess of the hurt from which it is being removed.

This happens with people too and there is, as I write, a very disturbing case (disturbing in my view based on the “facts” reported on the BBC news website) playing out in the media. It concerns a family in Norway from which the State has removed the five children on the grounds of child protection.

The reason, as reported, is because the couple used corporal punishment on their children which is specifically outlawed in Norway. There was no suggestion that the corporal punishment was excessive or that the children were otherwise uncared for.

Now one can argue the merits or otherwise of the judicious use of corporal punishment but regardless of one’s views it surely seems an overreaction by the authorities when some form of counselling and/or monitoring may have resolved the problem and kept the family together – especially when one considers that after the children were removed they were apparently split between three sets of foster parents. In all likelihood their psychological welfare has been severely compromised.

Which brings me back to the point I made previously about the removal of pets, and in particular dogs, from less than ideal homes but in which their “suffering” is relatively trivial. Surely it is better in such cases to encourage the owner to make changes in order to improve the animal’s life in its home environment rather than to remove it to a “place of safety” with which it is unfamiliar.

I sincerely hope that any vets called upon in the future by the RSPCA to certify an animal’s suffering in order to have it removed will give careful thought to the decision and consider the wider implications for the animal before going down that path.

In my view, only in severe cases should removal be considered the first and best option for the animal. Removing it from a less than ideal home runs the risk of subjecting it to an even poorer quality of life, particularly in the short term, which is surely not the outcome any of us are seeking to achieve.