Pet Relinquishment: To Be or Not To Be?

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Veterinary medicine is riddled with gray areas where compassion and legality walk a fine line. The debate over pet relinquishment to clinics has become a controversial topic. Prior to a recent case, I had not had much experience with the situation.  I felt if we can help the animal we should in any way possible. If the owner cannot provide the care the animal needs and elects to give it to someone else to provide that care, what is the problem?

I recently had a case of an adorable puppy with the horrible Parvovirus (please vaccinate).  While the puppy was not the most critical case of Parvo, he did require at a minimum outpatient treatment with follow up care; and, like many cases could become worse before he improves. The owner was working long hours and could not provide hospitalization or intensive nursing care at home. So she elected humane euthanasia. Well some of our staff fell in love. The owner did not want to be present and left the hospital…but she left a signed note. The note stated, “Please try to find a home to care for my puppy.”  We had already drawn up the euthanasia solution and were ready to give the lethal injection when our client administrator came back with the note. We all looked at each other knowingly; this puppy deserved a chance and the owner requested we try.

We were able to find a foster and the puppy improved with outpatient care. We had collected the funds for humane euthanasia, so I decided to contact the owner about the status and refund the money.  When I called the owner the next day stating I fulfilled her request for her puppy’s care and would like a credit card to refund her money, she seemed confused. She wanted to know, “how he was; could she have him returned once he was better; who had offered to care for him?” While all valid questions, she had clearly not understood what relinquishment means, she wrote a note out of desperation, love and guilt.

After a couple of conversations, I gave her the option of truly relinquishing and signing documentation and receiving a refund or fulfilling her wishes of humane euthanasia. In the end, she decided to relinquish him, but I could see how torn she was.

The easy solution= free veterinary care. Economically, however, this is not possible.  Relinquishments pose many issues:

  • the owner may change their mind
  •  there could be more than one owner involved and the other owner is not aware (this happens)
  • if someone is paying for the care, why can’t the pet be returned?
  • the owner’s dilemma of do I spare a life but live without or selfishly elect humane euthanasia

There is unfortunately, no easy solution, and even worse, at times no good deed goes undone. A recent case in Texas destroyed a veterinarians’ career. Another case in Florida was cited in 2008. These cases are not in isolation and with social media may be becoming more frequent.

Most of us in the profession have a soft spot for animals. Sometimes we have to consider the general ramifications of our decisions, and not just those furry little creatures’ best interests. While I care about each and every animal I treat, I cannot risk my reputation, career or license.  For now, my hospital has decided to ban owner sign-overs and I support that decision based on this experience. We hope to put a charity together to fund medical treatment for sick animals to help with the situation. Some shelters/rescues also have policies to care for sick animals.

The jury is still out and legality does not always cover emotion.

For more information see these articles from PetMD.

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