Dr. Sheldon Rubin is the director of Blum Animal hospital in Chicago, and a past president of the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association. The author of six books, including "Practical Guide to Dog Care," Dr. Rubin will be remembered by "Oprah" viewers as Winfrey's veterinarian, who has appeared on her show to discuss dog nutrition. Find out more about Dr. Rubin and the Blum Animal Hospital at www.blumvet.com.
Dr. Allen Schoen has been a pioneer in acupuncture and alternative therapies since 1981. He divides his time between large and small animal practice, teaching acupuncture and complementary veterinary medicine, and writing books for the public and other professionals. His latest is "Kindred Spirits: How the Remarkable Bond Between Humans & Animals Can Change the Way We Live." Find out more about Dr. Schoen and his practice at www.drschoen.com.
What's the most common reason people ask for a pet without a terminal illness to be put down?
Dr.Rubin: For cats, usually behavior [problems] and uncontrolled urination. Following that is the "I'm allergic" excuse, or they may be moving and unable to take the pet with them, such as senior citizens moving into a home. Most vets are very reluctant to euthanize an animal for convenience.
Dr. Allen Schoen:
Behavior problems are by far the biggest reason. Most of the time it's the owner's problem, not the animal's. The owner hasn't taken the time to properly train the animal. Some vets will put animals down because of uncontrolled urination and the owners don't want them. [Dr. Schoen absolutely will not put down animals due to behavioral problems.]
How often does this happen?
: It doesn't happen very often, but it happens. We try to disuade the owners and will often take the animal into the hospital. We're not into putting perfectly healthy animals to sleep for the convenience.
It isn't very frequent and depends on the economics of a particular practice. People who are more financially challenged tend to let go of animals quicker.
Is it better to put down an animal with a long-term but treatable disease, or to let it go back to a home, even if you suspect it won't be cared for?
If someone has a cat with diabetes and can't take care of it, we'll try to find someone who will take in special-needs animals. Each vet has a daily dilemma, since hospitals would be filled up with all the special-needs animals if some weren't euthanized. In general, it would be much more desirable to euthanize that pet than to let it go out on the street. Its fate on the street is going to be much worse: attacks by dogs, starvation, etc.
Each time it's an individual call. A couple asked me to put down their golden retriever. It was suffering from an infection in its uterus that could have easily been operated on, but the couple were New Age extremists and didn't want that. I couldn't put the animal down and had to refer them to another vet.
It comes down to what level are you responsible for the animal, at what point is the animal suffering and not enjoying a quality life. It also depends on your personal philosophy. Taking life creates bad karma. Most religions wouldn't recommend taking the life of a pet because it's "old and yucky."
Is euthanasia the most common ethical dilemma vets face in their practice?
Yes. Too often people get pets without realizing that it may be a minimum of a 15-year responsibility. Before you get a pet, think of the responsibility.
It is the most common ethical dilemma, but cosmetic surgery--ear trimming and declawing--are also common ethical dilemmas.
Euthanasia is a real dilemma for me. I once asked Buddhist Llama Amchuck Rinpoche about euthanasia, and he said it all depends on the intent. If it's to relieve suffering, it's not unreasonable. However, there are those who say that the animal's karma is to go to the end.
How do veterinary ethics differ in this regard from human medical ethics?
Human medicine needs to catch up in this regard. We can do so much to keep them [pets] alive. If it has cancer or is in very bad medical condition, bad teeth, kidney disease, what's the right thing to do for the pet? Vets have the ability and the right to relieve that suffering. Can't do it for people, but can do it for animals.
The difference: Euthanasia is allowed. Extraordinary means shouldn't be used.
Should we be looking for a time when animal life is treated the same as human? In terms of medicince and ethics?
We're actually at that time. In many cases, the scientific knowledge that veterinary medicine has is on par with human medicine. The only thing that prohibits us from doing more advanced work is money. We want to do whatever's appropriate to extend that animals life, but not everyone has that kind of discrentionary income. We'll be better equpipped when more people get pet insurance.
Dr. Schoen: As far as veterinary ethics goes, pain relief was never a real issue, and yet all pain research was done on animals! We need to take care of mind, body, and spirit in a totally different way than we have. In general, I think veterinary medicine is very ethical, but there is a lot that is ignored. It's time to acknowledge their emotions and address the emotional and spiritual parts.