The Veterinary Oath
Most people are familiar with the Hippocratic Oath that physicians and other human medical professionals take when they are granted their degrees. Veterinarians have our own oath:
Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.
I will practice my profession conscientiously, with dignity, and in keeping with the principles of veterinary medical ethics.
I accept as a lifelong obligation the continual improvement of my professional knowledge and competence.
We do what we do for various reasons and in various ways. Vets can function in private practice, military practice for food safety and care of the working animals, food safety for the general public, research in the field and in industry, as educators, sales reps, management in corporate hospital settings, community service, shelter medicine, and likely a bunch more I’m forgetting.
In this day to day activity, it’s easy to forget the exact wording of the oath. However, any veterinarian worth his or her salt is going to embody these principles in every action they take. We certainly all begin humbly and nervously with our first patients after graduation. If one is lucky to have a great mentor, there’s a safety net and the kind of hands-on knowledge that can’t be gained during school. In the long run, if a veterinarian takes the last sentence of the oath to heart, it gets easier and easier to live up to the calling in the first part.
Thanks for bearing with me while I pat my own profession on the back. 😉 I’m headed somewhere specific with this, I promise.
Whether we’re treating a specific species, or “all creatures great and small,” there is an underlying respect and reverence for animals that serves as a guide for our actions. In a professional or private capacity, it can be a challenge to act in a manner that’s consistent with our dedication to healing and helping.
Understanding principles of population management is a big part of small animal medicine, surprisingly. Four million dogs and cats are euthanized every year in US shelters. While this is a horrific statistic (and a topic for a whole other post), it’s much the same principle as managing a population of wildlife. What would happen if we didn’t give these dogs and cats a pain-free, peaceful death? They’d starve, die of disease, die of trauma or other injury, or worse. I don’t like euthanasia any more than anyone, especially when it’s clearly the only option left to a dog or cat that deserves a home and a loving family. This is the harsh reality of animal welfare in the US.
Where it really gets murky is a situation like this: A rescue group has taken in a litter of 7 puppies. We’ll assume that the origin is unknown — they were in a box dropped off at the grocery store. The rescue has them for about a week before a 4 get sick with vomiting and diarrhea. They test positive for parvovirus. The cost of trying to save a parvo puppy is in the neighborhood of $500-1000 (possibly more). The rescue now has to decide what to do. They have limited funds. With 3 sick puppies, that’s about $2000.00. The death rate for parvo is statistically about 40%, which means at least one, maybe 2 of these pups is simply not going to make it. Immediate instinct says to try to save them all. The harsh reality is that $2000 can go a long way to save a lot more dogs. Does the veterinarian recommend euthanizing any sick puppies? Does the veterinarian recommend treating everyone aggressively? How about treating at home with less-than-ideal methods that may simply prolong the time before death, but could also save a puppy? It’s certainly not clear-cut. Ethically speaking, this is a very, very personal call that each vet and owner will have to make individually.
On a less dramatic scale, I’ll offer one last example of how the oath and the real world collide. I was given a fish tank for a Christmas gift last December. I decided to keep the tank and set it up in my house. I spent 3 months researching aquaculture. I spent another month planning what I was going to do, from gravel to fish. Near the end of April, I had the stand and the tank, as well as all of my equipment. I was hellbent on doing everything exactly right, so that I wouldn’t kill anything. I read four different books and consulted the wisdom of some veterinarians who specialize in fish medicine. I also became an annoying customer at a few local fish stores.
During the first two weeks of May, all I had in it was water. Then, I got some plants. Some of those died, which upset me. Seriously, it scared me into thinking I maybe wasn’t cut out to handle aquatic pets! It turns out the plants that died were damaged during shipping to the local fish store, as all of the ones still in the store died, too. Relieved, I replanted, tended, and religiously tested the water every single day.
When the tank had finally cycled and was ready for fish, I bought 3 snails. It was June. One immediately died by crawling on the filter uptake and getting killed. This upset me more than the plants! I changed the filter to protect the snails. The snails and plants were all I had for the rest of June and July. I was going to be out of town for a big part of July, so I didn’t want to get fish and then make someone else watch them while I was away.
In August, I bought shrimp. They’re really neat (look up Amano Shrimp), and they did well. That made me feel comfortable with my husbandry practices. I figured I’d give fish a try, finally. I chose Cardinal Tetras, which are difficult to keep due to their short natural life span (1 year in the wild), as well as a poorly-understood disease that will randomly kill a few or all of a group of tetras. Great. I bought 12 on the advice of the fish store. Four died in the first 24 hours because of the strange disease. I was convinced I was going to lose them all, and I had already decided that if I was going to kill fish, I’d just keep the snails and shrimp and be happy with that. I didn’t sleep well for 3 nights because I was worried about killing more fish. They did alright for a while.
About a week into September, one of the surviving fish got sick and died. I actually tried to do a post-mortem exam on a 1.5” fish in my kitchen. I was upset that it had died, and really wanted to find out what had gone wrong. I didn’t get an answer. Two sleepless nights later, I had medicine from the fish store to try to eliminate some of the possible reasons for the fish dying. I had 4 employees at the fish store with books spread out all over the counter trying to figure out what had gone wrong. I found out too long after the fact that I could have sent the fish in for a professional pathology examination. I’m now prepared for that eventuality.
It’s nearly October, and I can proudly say that I’ve got 7 surviving fish, a whole crowd of new baby snails hatched in my tank, and 3 shrimp that are thriving. I also have a Clown Plecostamus, but (s)he hardly ever comes out. Each day that goes by, I feel less like a mass murderer of lives aquatic and more like I might actually be able to uphold my oath for this miniature aquatic habitat in a corner of my living room. Small creatures, indeed.