Tag Archives: MSPCA

“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

Congratulations, Massachusetts – a job well done

I’m very proud of my home state of Massachusetts.   Last week, Governor Patrick signed bill  S. 2192 “An Act Further Regulating Animal Control” into law.

The new law:

  • Creates a statewide spay/neuter program to reduce the number of homeless animals and will, in turn, also reduce the cost to cities and towns for housing and sheltering these animals. This is funded by a voluntary tax check off.
  • Adds enforcement provisions to section 139A (the spay/neuter deposit law for animals adopted from shelters and animal control facilities) to ensure homeless animals can’t reproduce.
  • Requires animal control officers to receive training.  This is funded by the tax check off.
  • Prohibits carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide gas as a means to “euthanize” dogs and cats.  (Anyone who saw the HBO documentary One Nation Under Dog knows why this important)
  • Improves the dangerous dog law in a breed neutral manner
  • Allows pets to be included in domestic violence protection orders

The law will also create some statewide oversight for animal control, which previously did not exist in the state; creates categories for kennel licensing; creates consistency in the holding time for stray dogs and provide other meaningful updates to the state’s antiquated animal control laws.  An amendment to the bill also added some restrictions on the tethering of dogs.

This new law will not cost money, it will actually minimize costs to cities and towns by reducing the number of homeless animals and the associated cost to house and take care of them. In addition, ensuring that animal control officers are trained, and improving the dangerous dog law to protect public safety, will provide indirect cost savings.

Best of all, this bill proves that animal welfare agencies can work together.  The bill was drafted as a collaboration between the Animal Control Officers Association of Massachusetts (ACOAM), the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA), the Animal Rescue League of Boston, the state’s Bureau of Animal Health within the Department of Agricultural Resources and the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association (MVMA).