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Abortion, euthanasia and unwanted puppies; an ethical nightmare.

Updated: Oct 19, 2019

”Imagine you are a veterinarian and a dog-owner requests you to abort a litter of puppies from her valuable pedigree breeding bitch. The neighbour’s male dog, a cross-bred got out a few weeks ago and mated her. How would you proceed?”

A conundrum presented to us ethics students by a university professor had us wondering what we could, and should do in the given situation.

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 is arguably one of the most advanced pieces of legislation designed to protect animal welfare in the world. It does state, however, that animals (vertebrates other than man) in their foetal or embryonic form are no protected by any area of the act at all. This means the options for the bitch then lie with the veterinarian recommendation and the owners decision, as the owner of the dog can make decisions on behalf of her animal.

The RCVS (2012) identify euthanasia as the killing without pain to eliminate suffering of an animal. They state that while no veterinary surgeon is under no obligation to kill a healthy animal, they often have the best means to do so. Under section 3 of the Veterinary Surgeons Act, veterinary surgeons have access to controlled drugs which can be considered the most appropriate for painless killing. This is especially important as euthanasia does not strictly have to be completed using veterinary only procedures.

The RVCS code of professional conduct continues on to say that in practice veterinarians will have to deal with the difficult situation that an owner wants a perfectly health animal put to sleep, and refusal of such could cause distress to the owner, and may mean they will seek alternative methods to kill the animal. Going back to the previous point, a veterinarian that puts to sleep an animal that isn’t suffering will at least know that it will not die or suffer by any other means i.e. neglect, alternative ‘euthanasia’ methods, etc. This can be argued that a veterinarian choosing to accept the owner’s request is taking responsibility and removing the risks of potential suffering from its future.

The AVMA has a detailed euthanasia policy (2013) that promotes the preservation of life through educating clients using their pertinent scientific knowledge and ethical concerns to help them make the more informed decision about killing their animals. This means that whilst a veterinary surgeon is not prevented by any law to kill a healthy animal that is not necessarily suffering, they should uphold the strong moral code to promote alternative measures.

Depending on the stage of gestation, there are a few abortion options. Spaying while pregnant is performed in the early stages, but this would be unacceptable for an owner who wishes to breed from her prize pedigree bitch. An Alizin injection is another option up to 22 days post-conception, with the success rates of completing abortion falling drastically after this date (Georgiev et al, 2016).

The other option would be to perform a caesarean section, remove the puppies and put them to sleep as they are removed. Once the puppies are removed, are they then protected animals? This adds to the ethical issue presented by the client.

The veterinarian could refuse to perform an abortion, and offer the advice of letting the bitch whelp and rehome or sell the puppies as cross breeds to loving homes. The client will more than likely not want to risk the health of her bitch, and waste time that she could use showing or mating her bitch with a pedigree stud. Outright refusal could result in her leaving and going to another vets, or seek other means of abortion. This could damage the client relationship with the practice, and also put the bitch in danger. Either way, it is not a black and white issue and will come down to the discretion of the individual, and hopefully bring ethical legislation into question. Some topics which could be re-visited include looking into the protection of pregnant vertebrates and their offspring, the question on animals being classed as property, and the euthanasia policies adopted, or not adopted by veterinary practices.

Animal Welfare Act (2006) Section 1: Animals to which the Act applies. http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2006/45/section/1 (Links to an external site.)

AVMA Policies (2013) Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals: 2013 Edition https://www.avma.org/KB/Policies/Documents/euthanasia.pdf (Links to an external site.)

Georgeiv, P., Bostedt, H., Goericke-Pesch, S., Dimitrov, M., Petkov, P., Stojanthev, K., Tsoneva, V. and Wehrend, A. (2016) Induction of Abortion with Aglepristone in Cats on Day 45 and 46 After Mating. Reproduction in domestic animals. 45, 5. P161-167.

RVCS Code of Professional Conduct (2012) Section 8: Euthanasia. http://www.rcvs.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/code-of-professional-conduct-for-veterinary-surgeons/supporting-guidance/euthanasia-of-animals/

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