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  • Veterinary Ethics: Navigating Tough Cases by Siobhan Mullan and Anne Fawcett
  • Jonathan Balcombe (bio)
Veterinary Ethics: Navigating Tough Cases. By Siobhan Mullan and Anne Fawcett. (Sheffield, England: 5M Publishing, 2017. 526 + xxv pp. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-910455-68-5.)

This is a hefty book on a weighty topic. The authors consulted more than 40 experts to address a wide range of ethical quandaries faced by modern veterinarians. The book is a veritable course in veterinary ethics, opening with theory and then moving to in-depth discussions of the importance of ethics and its role in making decisions. The bulk of the volume is a series of practical scenarios and expert responses, each with accompanying "What do you think?" and "What would you do?" vignettes, all arranged within chapters. Topics include death and euthanasia, money, consent, education and training, errors and complications, free-living animals, and others.

Because each case scenario is addressed by a (usually) different veterinary expert, the book provides a variety of viewpoints and approaches. One might quibble that [End Page 233] such an approach lacks consistency. I found it refreshingly instructive. After all, practicing veterinarians must daily make their own decisions regarding challenging situations that may have no single-best solution. Different clients and their companion animals present an infinite array of variables to contend with. The contributing experts were on the whole diligent in framing their responses in the oft-competing contexts of ethical ideals and practical realities.

Inevitably, then, users of this book will not concur with all of the recommendations for a given scenario. Nevertheless, I found the contributions notably conscientious. For example, instead of simply condemning vegan diets for cats, Richard Green, currently with the Veterinary Defense Society, presents a nuanced discussion that considers all stakeholders, including the animals processed into "pet" food. Similarly for the multipronged response of Andrew Gardiner (Royal School of Veterinary Studies) on how to deal with an aggressive cat, which includes discussions of nonmaleficence, beneficence, autonomy (yes, the cat's), and justice. In her discussion of managing inherited disease, Imke Tammen, a veterinarian at the University of Sydney, includes the role of local regulations and recommendations, immediate treatment and diagnostic decisions, future breeding and sale of pure-breed animals, and reporting to the particular breed association.

I came away with a deeper respect for just how difficult being a veterinarian can be. Such is the moral stress presented by these conflicted scenarios—where, for instance, some clients are more prepared to euthanize their animals than is the veterinarian, or vice versa—that suicide rates are proportionally high in the veterinary profession.

Despite its length, inevitably there are omissions. In a chapter on animal use, discussions of meat consumption fail to mention the rapidly advancing plant-based and in vitro meat sectors and the plant-based milks that now take up 10 percent of milk sales in the United States. I also got drawn into many of the vignettes, then felt left hanging by the absence of a response. Perhaps the authors will consider setting up an online discussion forum where professionals and clients alike can air their views.

Although it weighs over 3 pounds and retails at £39.95 ($51), Veterinary Ethics is well worth the price of admission. If I were a practicing veterinarian, I would certainly want to have a copy as a valuable reference.

Jonathan Balcombe
Independent Scholar
Jonathan Balcombe

JONATHAN BALCOMBE is an ethologist based in the United States. He serves as associate editor of the journal Animal Sentience. His latest book is The New York Times best-seller What a Fish Knows (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). Email:



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pp. 233-234
Launched on MUSE
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