Dear Dr Ferox, In a lecture today I was told that a good vet, and one less likely to grow disillusioned by their job, is one who knows when they've done all they can, and who realises that a vet can only advise; it's clients that make decisions. I get this, but struggle to agree with it. My duty of care is to the animal, and advising an owner on the best thing to do does not equal *actually* doing something to improve an animal's life. Do you have any advice for detaching in this way? Thank you.
First let me preface by saying that it’s fine to feel whatever you feel about situations animals may find themselves in. Trying to suppress your feelings wont do you any good psychologically, but I understand what your lecturer means.
There are points, and there are many of them in veterinary medicine, where choices need to be made. Sometimes there is a choice that is obviously better than the others. Sometimes there is not.
A veterinarian has to present these options to the owner of the animal. A veterinarian does not get to choose.
Most human being want to be decent. If you give them all the options, they want to choose one of the better ones. Many are limited in one way or another though, either financially, physically or practically. Very few set out to be deliberately assholes.
Sometimes those humans, for whatever reason, will not allow you to do everything that’s in the best interest of the animal. If you are aware of their limitations then often you can find a decent compromise, but sometimes you cannot.
There is a physical limit to what you, yourself, can do. You can’t go driving round to someone’s house unannounced because they didn’t bring their pet in for a follow up and stopped answering your calls. You can’t kidnap an animal to treat it. You can’t ‘pretend’ to put an animal to sleep and hide it from its owners.
You can, however, report them to the relevant authorities who do have those legal powers.
It’s not that you can’t do something to help that animal, it’s that you have been prevented from helping that animal. That karmic load belongs to the owners, not to you. Especially if you have provided them multiple options for getting treatment.
It’s sort of like in shelter medicine. Veterinarians put down lots of dogs and cats in shelters, many of which are perfectly nice, but have just run out of time. A member of the general public might cry about how could they possibly do that if they love animals. Why don’t they do X or Y instead, or adopt the animal themselves? Never mind the fact that the vet’s household is probably already full, or it soon would be, or the sheer number of animals they’re recommending be ‘rescued’ this way, or that it’s one tiny step away from an animal hoarding situation.
People who understand the industry don’t blame the vets putting these animals to sleep. Euthanasia may not be the very best of all the possible outcomes those animals could have had, but it’s the best choice left out of their options at that time.
The blame is shifted instead to the people who put those animals into those positions in the first place; puppy farms, backyard breeders, thoughtless owners, etc.
There is a difference between all that could have been done and what you as one, single human can do now.
It’s not a bad thing to want to be responsible for the whole world, but it’s easy to burn out that way. You need to know when you’ve done all you can, and when to call somebody else. That other person may be a fellow vet, or a specialist, or an animal welfare inspector. There are just some things that are beyond our control.
And whatever happens you have to be able to get up the next morning and tackle the next problem.