Tag Archives: ethics

“Moral distress” in the veterinary profession

This study’s lead author is Dr Lisa Moses.  Back in 2012, Lisa allowed me to follow her at Angell Animal Medical Center as she worked with dogs in her pain management clinic.

Although no one will argue about the rates of suicide in the veterinary profession, I’d also suggest that complementary practitioners also suffer from a level of moral distress – I’ve seen dogs that could have significant improvement but their owners are prevented from pursuing full therapy for a variety of reasons.  My very first tutor in canine massage prepared us by saying, “you will meet clients that don’t share your values or moral compass.”

Kathleen Crisley, Fear-Free certified professional and specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand


In some ways, it can be harder to be a doctor of animals than a doctor of humans.

“We are in the really unenviable, and really difficult, position of caring for patients maybe for their entire lives, developing our own relationships with those animals — and then being asked to kill them,” says Dr. Lisa Moses, a veterinarian at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals-Angell Animal Medical Center and a bioethicist at Harvard Medical School.

Dr Lisa Moses

Dr Lisa Moses courtesy of MSPCA – Angell

She’s the lead author of a study published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine about “moral distress” among veterinarians. The survey of more than 800 vets found that most feel ethical qualms — at least sometimes — about what pet owners ask them to do. And that takes a toll on their mental health.

Dr. Virginia Sinnott-Stutzman is all too familiar with the results. As a senior staff veterinarian in emergency and critical care at Angell, she sees a lot of very sick animals — and quite a few decisions by owners that trouble her

Sometimes, owners elect to have their pets put to sleep because they can’t or won’t pay for treatment, she says. Or the opposite, “where we know in our heart of hearts that there is no hope to save the animal, or that the animal is suffering and the owners have a set of beliefs that make them want to keep going.”

Distress around choices such as those is pervasive among vets, Moses and her colleagues found. For example, 69 percent said they had felt moderate to severe distress about not being able to give animals what they thought was the right care. Almost two-thirds were bothered by inappropriate requests for euthanasia.

The study’s senior author, Cambridge Health Alliance psychiatrist and Harvard bioethicist J. Wesley Boyd, sees a connection between the study’s findings and daunting statistics about veterinarians’ suicide rates: “My assumption,” he says, “is that the findings from our survey are definitely part of, or even the majority of, the reason why veterinarians have higher-than-average suicide rates.”

And Moses says that while euthanizing an animal is often the right thing to do to end suffering, that doesn’t make it easy.

“I want to make a plea to the pet-owning public to understand that, no matter what you think, odds are the person who’s trying to help you take care of your animal has pretty strong feelings about how important that is,” she says. “And they feel it.”

The study’s authors are calling for better training — in veterinary school and beyond — on self-care and how to cope with moral distress and ethical conflict.

Sinnott-Stutzman defines moral distress as the feeling when the vet determines an optimal treatment course but is blocked from carrying it out — whether because of money, or an owner’s beliefs, or rules about, say, dogs that bite.

“The most poignant example is when a young dog has a fracture — so a totally fixable, non-life-threatening problem,” she says. But an owner neither wants to pay for a proper fix nor have a three-legged dog, and opts for euthanasia instead.

“That’s a really tough thing to go through,” she says. It’s also particularly hard, she says, when owners, caught up in their grief, project their anger onto the vet. “So in this example,” she says, they might say, ” ‘We have to kill our dog because you’re all about the money,’ which is of course not the case.”

In her 15 years doing emergency and critical care, Sinnott-Stutzman says, she has changed how she copes with moral distress. In the past, she would mainly talk tough cases through with colleagues. Now, she often tries to refocus her mind — meditate, take a walk, think about her kids. She might share an experience with her husband — who will focus on her feelings — rather than a colleague, who is likelier to focus on the medical aspects.

She strongly endorses the study authors’ call for better training for vets in how to handle moral distress. Everything she has learned about coping has come from mentors and friends outside the veterinary profession, she says, and “it absolutely needs to be part of how we teach vets.”

Source:  WBUR

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Run, Spot, Run – book review

Run, Spot, Run -The Ethics of Keeping Pets by Jessica Pierce takes its name from the black and white puppy of the Dick and Jane early reader books that were used from the 1930s until the 1970s.

Spot is a stand-in for all the animals that are kept as pets; this is not just cats and dogs but also exotics and other animals.

Run Spot Run by Jessica Pierce

The scope of this book is a mixture of information which is enlightening, challenging and thought-provoking.

Pierce, a bioethicist, aims to answer the fundamental question, “Is it ethical to keep pets?”  And the issue isn’t nearly as black and white as Spot the dog was.

She covers the implication of care needs such as spay/neuter, enrichment and feeding, for example.  The feeding chapters canvas the issues of what we choose to feed, and how these feeds are sourced – powerful stuff that is often missed in the ever-present “raw vs kibble” debate.  Food for thought, definitely.

Cruelty and neglect are also covered, as are the hard-hitting facts of other animal abuse such as sexual abuse of animals (this chapter comes with a warning about offensive and disturbing content).   Exotic pets and their plight are also discussed.

This book is not a light read; but for any true pet lover, you owe it to yourself to look at the wider ethical issues around pet care and responsibility.  Pierce’s final words are a fitting closure to this book:

“I leave you with a call to action.  Change starts with awareness.”

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand

Paw Justice

For those of you in New Zealand, Paw Justice is an animal welfare organisation fighting for the rights of our pets.  Their mission statement is:

“Listening and talking to pet owners about their problems and their pet’s concerns

And, until this day comes, Paw Justice will be seeking justice against those who hurt our animals.”

Paw Justice was successful in its attempt to gain signatures from around the country supporting tougher sentencing for offenders who abuse animals.  They are now fundraising to continue the pressure on our society to treat animals properly.  They operate a Facebook page and sell Paw Justice products on their website.  You can also make a donation on their website.

Best of all, the folk at Paw Justice now have the Patch Up Your Pet campaign.  For $10, you buy a Paw Justice tag for your pet.  This has a unique identification code and you register your contact details against this number.  If your pet is found with their Paw Justice tag, people can log onto the website to get your contact details and return your pet to you.  When you register your pet against the number, you can also upload their photo to the Paw Justice website.

The idea is to grow the number of people supporting the movement and to keep pressure on to ensure animal abuse is stopped.

Daisy is now patched!

Show your support for Paw Justice by following this link:

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand