Rollin Uncensored

Rollin Uncensored

He's prolific, opinionated, sometimes brash and a consummate consensus builder.
Feb 01, 2006

Euthanasia and adequate control of pain top the list of ethical dilemmas for this decade.

It is about deciding life and death. Consider this: Veterinary medicine is the only medical profession sanctioned to humanely kill. And as technology's advancement and medical delivery systems march forward, veterinarians are faced with an ever-increasing ethical dilemma on when to recommend euthanasia and when to deny it.

Bernard Rollin, philosopher and ethicist, wants veterinarians and lawmakers to "re-appropriate common sense" when it comes to animal welfare.
Dr. Bernard E. Rollin, considered one of the foremost experts in animal ethics and distinguished professor of philosophy at Colorado State University's Departments of Philosophy and Biomedical Sciences, talked with DVM Newsmagazine about the ethical questions faced by veterinarians on issues like euthanasia, control of pain and distress, and animal welfare.

Rollin won the Henry Spira Award last fall, one of only three recipients in the world to achieve such an honor from the Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing. And while the flamboyant, sometimes outspoken Rollin attests that advancements in all three areas are transparent, there's still plenty of room to improve.

"I think that an animal can't value life in itself. If you and I, God forbid, were stricken with cancer, we can say, 'Well, I will go through six months of chemo hell because it might buy me five or 10 more years. An animal doesn't seem to have the intellectual apparatus to form that notion. It cannot postpone future benefits for its current pain." But humans do.

With it comes the inherent responsibility of choosing the risk/benefits of treatment versus quality of life, Rollin says.

"When an animal is subjected to lots of surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy, it isn't because the animal wants to live longer," he says. "So, there is an issue of how much you are doing it for the animal and how much you are doing it for the owner's own selfish needs."

A doctor takes an oath to save and extend life. It's the ethical dilemma that every veterinarian and pet owner must face when treating a sick or injured animal. How far do you go with medical treatment?

While Rollin dubs it an ethical judgment call in each case, the dilemma should be focused on alleviating pain and suffering and improving the patient's quality of life no matter which option is pursued.

Rollin recalls an example. "A friend of mine came up to me and said, 'My dog was just diagnosed with cancer.' He asked: 'How do I know when to pull the plug? I am willing to spend the money on treatment.' I told him to go and talk it over with his wife and family and write down as many things that you can about when the dog is happy. Then, I told them to put it away. As treatment progresses, pull it out and use it as a measure of whether or not that animal has a decent life."

His friend later thanked him because the test made him and his family realize that even though the animal's quality of life had diminished so greatly, they held on to the emotions that they couldn't bear to lose the dog.

And yet another segment of society is far too quick to shed it ownership responsibilities.

Why are we, as a society, still killing millions of healthy animals a year? Rollin asks.

"Spay/neuter hasn't worked. What is our next approach? What is the answer?

"I think people should be forced to demonstrate that they know what they are getting into before they purchase or adopt an animal. You know damn well that someone sees Turner and Hooch and they decide they want a Tibetan Mastiff or whatever breed it was. They go to the store and buy it, and they discover that this is a high-maintenance aimal... They just take it to the pound and hope it gets a good home."