Monday, June 30, 2014

Blue Juice: Euthanasia in Veterinary Medicine

An elderly cat at the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary in Rome (you can read more about them here).

Euthanasia is an important part of veterinary medicine – being able to relieve suffering and ensure a peaceful death is a privilege. Quite often when I discuss euthanasia with our medical counterparts they express the view that they wish such a service were available to human beings.

But euthanasia brings with it many challenges – assessment of the interests of an animal and quality of life when our patients cannot report these; in some cases uncertainty; the limits of medicine; economic concerns; the extent of intervention which is appropriate; the burden of decision making and grief. And I'm not even going to start with the topic of human euthanasia.

Patricia Morris, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Drury University, spent over 18 months speaking with and shadowing companion animal veterinarians, with a focus on euthanasia consultations – and wrote an entire book about it.

Which I must say is a brilliant read.

“For social scientists, the study of veterinary euthanasia provides a unique lens through which to study many important topics, including professional socialisation, emotion management, and death and dying, as well as relationships between practitioners and patients or clients in a medical-care system that is ethically complex” (p16).
She looks at the emotional and ethical conflicts around the concept of effecting a “good death” for our patients.

As a veterinarian I’ve not read extensively in the field of sociology, this view from an “outsider” of the negotiation and practice of euthanasia is very insightful.

Morris talked to veterinarians with a range of experience, from new graduates to seasoned practitioners, about how they think about euthanasia. The book lends a fascinating perspective into how veterinarians, “charged with the difficult task of balancing the interests of their animal patients and their human clients” cope with this responsibility. But Morris also asks the bigger questions about how the way we think about and perform euthanasia reflects a deep and unresolved tension in human-animal relationships.

“As medical providers to non-human animals, veterinarians are in a position that exemplifies the ambiguity inherent in human-animal relationships – they treat animals as both subjects (patients who deserve quality medical care) and objects (the client’s property)” p6.
Despite the topic, which can be very emotionally loaded, this is not a depressing book at all – nor is it judgemental. Different people cope differently with euthanasia but it’s a topic relevant to all veterinarians. Nor is this book loaded with sociology terminology – in fact it’s very readable, whether you are approaching it from a vet or humanities perspective (or both).

Euthanasia raises many major ethical questions and without being morbid is something that needs to be discussed and reflected on and thought about on an ongoing basis.

P.S. If you're interested in ethics you might want to read this interview with veterinary ethicist James Yeates.


Morris, P (2012) Blue Juice: Euthanasia in Veterinary Medicine. Philadelphia, Temple University Press.