Welfare, law and ethics in the veterinary intensive care unit

(A discussion of the different types of suffering that patients may endure in the veterinary intensive care unit, the legal limits to that suffering, and the ethics underpinning at what point that suffering becomes ‘un-necessary’)
  • Peter S. Fordyce
    Correspondence: Peter S Fordyce, Department of Veterinary Medicine, University of Cambridge, Madingley Road, Cambridge, CB30ES, UK.
    Department of Veterinary Medicine, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
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Published:January 13, 2017DOI:



      In UK law, allowing an animal protected under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (AWA 2006) (as devolved) to suffer ‘unnecessarily’ may render the person responsible for it to prosecution. The act does not define suffering, although ‘case law’ suggests that suffering encompasses more than pain. Clinicians responsible for animals under their care in the intensive care unit (ICU) are likely to also be responsible in law for the welfare of those animals, and may be called upon to justify why any suffering was necessary, or more likely, why they did not act to end any suffering when it became ‘unnecessary’. As animals are considered to be ‘property’ in law, the legal requirement to prevent ‘unnecessary suffering’ may conflict with the owner’s property rights. Additionally, professional conflict may arise between the clinicians whose opinion of where the border between ‘heroic treatment’ and ‘futile treatment’ lays. Different types of suffering that might be relevant to clinical and ethical decision making for patients in the ICU are discussed, with suggestions for how these might be categorised, measured and recorded, so that objective data is available on which discussions about the animal’s actual and projected welfare can be held with the animal’s owner, and other clinicians involved in the case.


      The development of ‘welfare scoring systems’ for the ICU may assist clarifying the point at which heroic treatment is becoming futile, and therefore suffering becoming unnecessary, and place veterinary anaesthetists in an even stronger position to act as ‘advocate for the animal’ in their care.


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