Issue 51 - Consent for euthanasia
Euthanasia in veterinary practice can be a stressful experience for pet owners and veterinary staff alike. Additional stress can occur where the circumstances around a request to euthanise an animal cause a veterinarian to question who can actually provide the required consent.
In considering the issue of consent, the overall aims for a veterinary practitioner should be:
1. To avoid a situation where a pet is euthanised without the required standard for consent being met
2. To ensure that animals for whom euthanasia has been requested do not experience any unnecessary pain or suffering.
Under Clause 7 of the Veterinary Practitioners Code of Professional Conduct (the Code), veterinary practitioners must, where it is practicable to do so, obtain informed consent of the person responsible for the care of an animal before providing veterinary services to the animal.
It is important to note that the legislation does not require that informed consent is obtained from the owner of the animal. This means that consent does not need to be obtained from the owner listed on the pet’s microchip or registration record, for example. Rather, a veterinary practitioner needs to satisfy themselves that the person who has provided consent for euthanasia is the person responsible for the care of that animal.
Whilst verbal consent is acceptable, written consent ensures that there is a record between the parties.
Given that euthanasia is an irreversible procedure, veterinarians are also encouraged to explain this to any clients requesting euthanasia. It is important to clarify any questions the person may have about the procedure and explain the costs involved before euthanasia is carried out (Clause 16 of the Code).
The Board recommends that euthanasia consent forms are completed prior to an animal being euthanised and suggests that the wording of such forms include a statement that the person providing consent is “responsible for the care of the animal” and that the procedure is irreversible. If a complaint does arise, this is an invaluable defence for the veterinarian.
A veterinarian can decline a request to euthanise an animal. A veterinarian may also offer to take responsibility for an animal that they do not wish to euthanise. Documentation supporting the transfer of ownership in such circumstances should be very clear. If the animal has not been microchipped it is best to discuss this situation with the local pound or the Office of Local Government on 02 4428 4100.
If a veterinarian is not satisfied that the person requesting euthanasia is a person responsible for the animal’s care, the euthanasia should be postponed or declined. An example of this may be where a person requests euthanasia for an animal that has not been previously seen by a particular veterinary hospital, where there are requests for euthanasia of multiple animals simultaneously or a person “drops an animal off” to be euthanised.
When requests for euthanasia are postponed or declined, veterinarians are reminded that under Clause 2 of the Code a veterinary practitioner must at all times consider the welfare of animals when practising veterinary science. Unfortunately, there may be situations where a veterinarian’s refusal to euthanise an animal may cause them to fear for that animal’s ongoing welfare. In such a circumstance, veterinarians are encouraged to contact their relevant animal protection agency or consider if they are able to exercise their power under s26AA of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 (POCTA). Under s26AA, a veterinary practitioner may euthanise an animal that is “so severely injured, so diseased or in such a physical condition that it is cruel to be kept alive and the animal … is about to be destroyed in a manner that will inflict unnecessary pain upon the animal”.
Decisions around euthanasia are fraught with legal, ethical and emotional considerations. If decisions around euthanasia are causing difficulties for you, the Board encourages you to seek assistance from one or more of the following services available to veterinarians:
Doctors Health Advisory Service:
02 9437 6552
1300 224 636