Vet's Hand on Dog
First thing on my hectic Monday morning, I received some bad news. It came in the guise of an “I’m so sorry” email from my local veterinary ER. One of my patients had been euthanized over the weekend.

Of course, it’s always a sad affair when a patient passes. Over coffee we vets will acknowledge the loss, tell a story or two, make condolence calls and sign sympathy cards. Then we’ll move on to the business of treating the living.

But this morning’s news proved quite a bit worse than the usual. This patient wasn’t even 2 years old! What’s more: This patient had been fundamentally healthy. All he needed was to be treated for a simple disease — one which required a minimum of fuss, cash or fanfare.

How do I know? Uno had been interned at our hospital the previous week with a highly treatable prostatic problem. Upon discharge, I’d carefully explained that his antibiotic medications would help for the moment, but that castration would be necessary within the week.

Over the weekend, however, Uno had turned up his nose at food and laid around all day, which prompted an ER visit. There, his owner declined treatment and elected euthanasia, and the veterinarian on duty had complied.

To be fair, I was not privy to the conversation between the owner and veterinarian at the ER that night. I don’t know what other circumstances contributed to the ultimate conclusion. But on the surface, those of us who had worked with Uno the previous week couldn’t understand how euthanasia could possibly have been the best solution for an eminently treatable ailment.

We couldn’t help but think this late-night endeavor qualified as an act of "convenience euthanasia."

That was our point of view, anyway. Hot Cuban coffee couldn’t wash the bad taste from our mouths that morning.

An Ethical Dilemma

Convenience euthanasia is a hot-button topic in companion animal vet medicine. It happens when owners ask that their relatively healthy pets be euthanized for what, on the surface, appear to be trivial reasons: moving, carpeting, couch or stereo speaker destruction, marriage, divorce, job loss, travel, etc. 

Whatever the case, the common denominator is the pet’s nuisance factor, not his welfare. He’s a bother. She’s more trouble than she’s worth. He’s too big for our apartment. She sheds too much. A fill-in-the-blank hassle.

Plenty of veterinarians in private practice feel just as I do. We won’t euthanize healthy animals ever. It’s contrary to our veterinarian’s oath to go there. 

But refusing a convenience euthanasia isn’t simple either. Will the owner go to another clinic where the pet’s history isn’t known? Will the pet be abandoned on a country road or suffer an even worse fate?

Instead, we seek out every possible option to rehome the pet. We direct the owner to shelters and rescue organizations. We pin notices on our bulletin boards and lean on soft-hearted clients who may have room for one more pet. We add another "clinic cat," who will make his home in our front office. And often, a previous patient becomes part of our own menagerie.

Still, there’s a limit to how many of these situations we can circumvent.

It’s Not Always a Clear Decision

Between convenience euthanasia and euthanasia to relieve suffering in the chronically ill, painful or geriatric, there’s a wide swath of gray area. Every week, veterinarians are presented with animals whose owners can no longer care for them for one reason or another. Some of these pets may have a manageable medical condition that unfortunately requires a significant investment in time or money. Others may need special care because of separation anxiety or another behavior problem.

Many of these pets are relatively healthy. Many of them are unlikely to be adopted. When we balance this with the fact that our shelters are often overpopulated, how do we decide what’s right? It’s one reason some veterinarians suffer emotional burnout. Yet veterinarians know that these are the ethical issues we’re likely to confront in the environment we practice in.

Still, is it too much to wish that one day we won’t be asked to provide euthanasia for minimally ill or "inconvenient" pets? Then there’d be a whole lot fewer patients like Uno for people like me and my staff members to wring our hands over.

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