Veterinarian: New AVMA ethics policy has a fundamental flaw

It cites guides to depopulation and euthanasia that aren't about ethics

Published: June 27, 2024
By Barry Kipperman

Photo courtesy of Dr. Barry Kipperman
Dr. Barry Kipperman is a veterinary ethicist board-certified in internal medicine and animal welfare.

A small but potent passage in the updated Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics approved Friday by the profession's main policymaking body contains glaring lapses in logic.

The failings are in a section of the American Veterinary Medical Association's ethics principles focused on end-of-life considerations. The troubling statements are:

The problem is that those AVMA guidelines for intentionally ending the lives of animals are based on scientific criteria, not ethics.

Science — in this instance, lists of AVMA-approved methods for killing animals — can tell us only what approaches may be used to end lives.

Ethics, by comparison, is concerned with right and wrong. In this context, ethical behaviors are influenced by one's morality and identity and evolving societal norms on how and when we should end the lives of animals.

The very documents that the revised Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics (PVME) points to explicitly state that ethical questions are beyond their scope.

The AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals states, "The Panel believes that evaluating ... the rationale for inducing death ... is beyond its purview." 

Similarly, the AVMA Depopulation Guidelines "do not venture into the morality of killing animals during depopulation or of the acceptability of so-called prophylactic culling or precautionary killing."

Given these disclaimers, the PVME should not suggest that compliance with the guidelines absolves veterinarians of ethical concerns.

In the public's eyes, veterinarians bear a crucial responsibility: safeguarding the welfare of animals, including those used in food production. The AVMA would seem to agree, proclaiming that "veterinarians are, and must continually strive to be, the leading advocates for the good welfare of animals in a continually evolving society." Furthermore, the AVMA Animal Welfare Principles guide how animals' lives should be ended by veterinarians: "Animals shall be treated with respect and dignity throughout their lives and, when necessary, provided a humane death."

Ethical considerations around the euthanasia of animals extend beyond the provision of a humane death; they encompass the circumstances and intentions behind such decisions. Euthanasia can be a merciful procedure when ending terminal suffering, but it also can be performed in circumstances that do not align with an individual animal's best interest.

Veterinary practitioners regularly experience emotional conflict about the suitability of euthanasia requests. Results of a survey of North American veterinarians, published in 2018 in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, found that 93% had received what they considered inappropriate requests for euthanasia.

What might those be? The veterinary ethicist and lawyer Jerrold Tannenbaum summarized them well in the book Veterinary Ethics: Animal Welfare, Client Relations, Competition and Collegiality, in which he introduced the term "medically unnecessary euthanasia" to describe acts of euthanasia that contravene the best interests of the animal. This category includes convenience euthanasia, in which an animal's life is ended due to a shift in an owner's circumstances, be it insufficient time, capability (emotional and physical), or motivation to continue caring for an animal. There is also economic euthanasia, which occurs when the primary reason for an animal's death is the owner's inability or unwillingness to pay for necessary veterinary care.

In Blue Juice: Euthanasia in Veterinary Medicine, the sociologist Patricia Morris summarized the potential outcome of these quandaries: "Veterinary work often causes distress … because it requires people who care strongly for animals to kill them when [the animals] are not sick enough to easily justify their death."

Most veterinarians consider the euthanasia of a healthy animal to conflict with their duty to advocate for their patients. According to the PVME, however, if a veterinarian were to euthanize a black cat because its shedding on a white couch was objectionable to the owner, the action would be an ethical procedure, provided conventional methods were used. This defies logic and reason.

Depopulation, defined in AVMA guidelines as the mass killing of large numbers of animals, typically occurs in response to emergencies such as infectious disease outbreaks and natural and human-induced disasters. One method included in the AVMA depopulation guidelines is ventilation shutdown plus (VSD+). The technique involves "closing up the house, shutting inlets, and turning off the fans" before adding heat until the animals die from hyperthermia (heat stroke). The guidelines categorize VSD+ as "permitted in constrained circumstances" for poultry confined in buildings, and for ratites and pigs.

Unfortunately, VSD+ has become an increasingly common method of depopulation in the United States, partly because it is most convenient for humans and is AVMA-approved.

However, many methods of animal killing sanctioned by the AVMA's guidelines on animal death are considered so inhumane and unethical that they are banned in other countries. In the United Kingdom and the European Union, the use of depopulation methods such as VSD+ and medium-expansion water-based foam, which involves covering birds in a blanket of foam that leads to their deaths via airway occlusion and/or drowning, are prohibited. Notably, both methods are permitted under the AVMA depopulation guidelines.

All veterinarians should be concerned that the new language in the PVME is oversimplified, failing to adequately address complex issues and providing cover for procedures that contradict humane end-of-life care. The changes discourage ethical reflection and debate rather than promoting a culture of rigorous and informed discussion.

During its meeting last week, the AVMA House of Delegates, composed of representatives from every state and 18 allied groups, voted nearly unanimously (with one abstention) in favor of the updated PVME. There was no discussion of the illogical additions during the voting process. The oversight raises significant questions about the ethical trajectory of our profession.

I urge all AVMA members to call their state delegate to voice their concerns about these changes.

Barry Kipperman, DVM, DACVIM, MSc, DACAW, teaches veterinary ethics at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine and animal welfare and ethics at the University of Missouri. He co-edited the 2022 textbook “Ethics in Veterinary Practice: Balancing Conflicting Interests” with the late Dr. Bernard Rollin. He is a co-founder of the Veterinary Association for Farm Animal Welfare, a new nonprofit devoted to improving the welfare of farm animals through a veterinary lens focused on animal welfare and ethics.

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