My first day back from winter break was grueling, yet also unexpectedly intriguing. I was surprised to see that my vague, squeamish feelings toward some aspects of veterinary medicine were being translated into concrete ethical dilemmas by my ethics professor. For example, I have always felt uncomfortable when owners and veterinarians disagree on treatment options. Pet owners may feel frustrated when they think that the veterinarian is trying to encourage them to agree to a different treatment plan or outcome. For example, an owner may want to euthanize a middle-aged intact dog with a uterine infection, but the vet may advocate for surgery because he or she thinks the dog has a very good chance of survival. Owners may be frustrated and a little angry that the vet is “opposing” their decision. However, veterinarians also have a responsibility to advocate for the patient’s welfare, and may have strong beliefs about the right course of action, which can lead to some practical dilemmas.
Vets also have a responsibility to uphold public health, which in some instances may trump owner values and other factors altogether. For example, a dog bitten by a rabid raccoon is quarantined and euthanized in the attempt to curb spread of the rabies virus in people and animals. However, some people may think that “good of the many” doesn’t outweigh the “good of the individual” and may instead encourage quarantine and a monitoring period to determine for sure whether the dog has rabies, possibly avoiding unnecessary loss of a life but at the risk of exposing veterinary care workers.
Lastly, vets must also juggle their business needs—although vets would love to do everything in their power to treat every animal, they can’t do so without financial resources to pay for their equipment, supplies, and time. It was an interesting first week back, and even though ethical dilemmas are tough, it’s certainly been a relief for me to talk about them with my peers.