The Ethics of Euthanising Greyhounds and the Role of Veterinarians

 

By Caroline Hoetzer

 

 

Significant ethical and welfare issues for greyhounds arise as a product of the nature of the commercial racing industry.  Since 2000, and most recently in 2014, investigations into the integrity of the greyhound industry have exposed ethical and welfare concerns regarding greyhounds that penetrate every level of the racing industry (ICAC, 2000; Lewis, 2008; Scott 2008; Select Committee on Greyhound Racing in NSW, 2014).  Since the greyhound racing industry is not independently regulated, it is insulated from external scrutiny.  This leaves greyhounds vulnerable to exploitation and abuse in an industry that prioritises the commercial profit of owners and trainers over the welfare of the animal (Hoetzer, 2013; Barristers Animal Welfare Panel, 2013; Lawyers for Companion Animals, 2013).  One important ethical issue that arises from this commercial industry is the euthanasia of greyhounds that are no longer required for racing or breeding purposes.  Most veterinarians have little or no knowledge of the internal practices of the racing industry, often only encountering racing greyhounds when the dogs are brought to the clinic to be euthanised (Tannenbaum, 1995). This state-of-affairs not only keeps the fate of the animals in the hands of the industry that exploits them, but also presents unique ethical and welfare concerns for veterinarians as it requires them, individually and as a profession, to decide what role they are to play in the greyhound racing industry.

 

The primary purpose of the greyhound racing industry is profit through gambling, thus greyhounds are treated as commercial assets rather than beloved family pets (McEwan & Skandakumar, 2011; Hoetzer, 2013).   Since there is no restriction on the number of greyhounds that can be bred, a high number of greyhounds are bred and then disposed of every year.   Greyhound Racing NSW reported that 8,000 greyhounds are born each year in NSW alone and more than 3,000 of these are euthanised because they are deemed “too slow”, have been injured during racing or training, are not desired for breeding purposes, or have reached the end of their racing career (Select Committee on Greyhound Racing in NSW, 2014; Jones, 2005; McDonald, 2012)..  Greyhounds generally have a short racing career, which begins at around 18 months of age and ends when they are 4 to 5 years old (Cockington, 2012).   It is at the end of this short career that veterinarians are called upon to euthanise unwanted greyhounds for the convenience of their owners or trainers, as they are deemed to be no longer useful or desirable to the racing industry.  Veterinarians then face an ethical dilemma since many of these greyhounds are young and/or otherwise healthy (Tannenbaum, 1995).

 

Whilst the euthanasia of animals is accepted by the veterinary profession as an ethical means to end suffering, the performance of euthanasia is a morally complex and stressful part of veterinary practice (Yeates and Main, 2011).   Euthanising a patient requires a veterinarian to balance the sometimes conflicting interests of the animal, the owner, and the veterinarian.   Policy 4.4 of the Australian Veterinary Association relates to the role of euthanasia as a means of reducing the suffering of animals, but also states that euthanasia can be used when animals are “no longer required for breeding or other specific purposes”.   This policy thus opens a wide window of circumstances in which euthanasia for purposes of convenience could be professionally justified, which neither equips nor empowers veterinarians with a means of dealing with the ethical dilemma of whether or not to euthanise a healthy unwanted animal.  In the case of greyhounds, euthanasia is sought on the basis of either poor performance or due to injuries sustained during racing or training; thus the greyhound is a victim twice over, either to be killed for no fault of its own or as a result of the industry’s dirty deeds.  This is a morally ambiguous equation, intimately tied to the nature of the racing industry which commercially exploits greyhounds for a profit-making purpose and the veterinarian is brought into the equation as the moral gatekeeper of the decision to euthanise. 

 

In the resolution of the ethical dilemma of whether or not to euthanise an unwanted greyhound, veterinarians may choose to be guided by their own ethical views about the value of animal life (Sandoe and Christiansen, 2007; Rebuelto, 2008).  Rebuelto (2008) described the issue of euthanasia in veterinary practice as a field in “which there are many conflicts for taking the right decision and justifying the election”, since there are different views about the importance of an animal’s life and the legitimacy of reasons for euthanasia (Yeates & Main, 2011).   If the veterinarian’s view is that animals are items of personal property, to be disposed of at will by owners - as they are legally able to be - then the veterinarian may consider his/her role to be to carry out the instructions of the greyhound owner and provide humane euthanasia.  Indeed, in the study by Yeates and Main (2011) several veterinarians reported always euthanising a dog when requested to by the owner.  For some veterinarians, greyhounds are not considered to be the same as the family pet, but rather as akin to industry animals, which are ordinarily kept for human use and routinely slaughtered when that purpose is called upon (for example in the food, leather, or animal by-product industries) (see Tiplady, 2014; Tannenbaum, 1995).

 

Fortunately, this Orwellian delineation between greyhounds and other breeds of dog is a view not shared by all.  Many veterinarians morally object to euthanising healthy animals for the convenience of their owners (Rebuelto, 2008; Yeates & Main, 2011).  In a study of veterinarians’ experiences with the euthanasia of companion animals, it was found that, although opinions regarding the ethics of euthanasia varied among practitioners, most practitioners focussed on the welfare of their patient in order to make their decision (Yeates & Main, 2011).  Described by Rollin (2011) as a “moral stress”, convenience euthanasia can be seen to be against the very essence of the veterinary profession, the goal of which is to alleviate pain and maximise the animal’s health and quality of life.  Merely carrying out the instructions of a greyhound owner seeking convenience euthanasia ignores the practitioner’s professional obligations to the patient and, as Rollin (2002) states, makes the role of the veterinarian as akin to a garage mechanic.  The role of the veterinarian should be more akin to a paediatrician, and as such the patient’s welfare and best interests should be the practitioner’s constant endeavour (Rollin, 2002; 2006).  

 

In the interests of the greyhound patient, the role of the veterinarian would be to oppose convenience euthanasia, and to actively encourage and even assist the greyhound owner to surrender the dog to a greyhound rescue group for rehabilitation and rehoming (Tannenbaum, 1995).  If the veterinarian’s role would be that of an advocate for the welfare of the animal, better welfare outcomes for greyhounds would be delivered.   The role of the veterinarian no doubt becomes more complex when the greyhound owner refuses to rehome the dog, or threatens to take their dog elsewhere to be euthanised or worse, dispose of the dog by their own means.  This is a complex ethical dilemma not uncommon in veterinary practice, and it cannot be easily resolved given the status of animals as property in the Australian legal system (Rollin, 1999; Rosenberg, 2013).  Under anti-cruelty legislation such as the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 (NSW), the killing of an animal is not unlawful per se: so long as the pain and suffering inflicted on the animal during the act of killing does not amount to cruelty, it is lawful for an owner to dispose of his/her personal property (McEwan & Skandakumar, 2011; Hoetzer, 2013).   However, neither the law nor veterinary professional policy requires a veterinarian to accede to the wishes of the owner, as a paying customer, with no regard for the best interests of the animal.  Indeed, the Code of Professional Conduct, published by the Veterinary Practitioners Board of New South Wales, requires at rule 2 that the veterinarian at all times consider the welfare of animals when practising veterinary science.  Sandoe and Christiansen (2007) present the view that the quality and quantity of an animal’s life matter and the euthanasia of a young and healthy animal will make a “negative moral contribution” to the integrity of veterinary practice.   Tannenbaum (1995) also argues that convenience euthanasia is neither in the best interests of the animal nor of the veterinary profession as a whole. 

 

In conclusion, veterinarians individually and the profession as a whole can play an important role in improving the welfare of greyhounds discarded from the racing industry by refusing to perform euthanasia for the convenience of owners.  As Tannenbaum (1995) argued, the veterinarian profession must act to promote an image of their patients as beings of importance.  In the bigger picture, the veterinary profession as a whole should support greyhound rescue groups in lobbying the state governments and greyhound racing bodies to reduce the number of greyhounds disposed of each year and importantly, to reduce the overall number of greyhounds bred for racing purposes each year (Tannenbaum, 1995). 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

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McDonald, T (2012), Greyhound racing euthanasia rates slammed, ABC News, 10 November 2012, accessed 3 October 2014, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-11-09/greyhound-racing-euthanasia-rates-slammed/4362442>


McDonald, T (2012), The quick and the dead, ABC Radio National, 11 November 2012, accessed 3 October 2014, <http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/backgroundbriefing/2012-11-11/4355398>

 

McEwan, A and Skandakumar, K, “The welfare of greyhounds in Australian racing: Has the industry run its course?” (2011) Australian Animal Protection Law Journal, 6: 53-74

 

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Yeates, J.W. and Main, D.C.J (2011), Veterinary opinions on refusing euthanasia: justifications and philosophical frameworks, Veterinary Record 168: 263

 

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