Futile veterinary care for pets is widespread, American study finds

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Establishing an ethical framework to navigate questions surrounding medical futility may help reduce moral distress, say researchers.
Administering futile care can become an issue when animals approach the end of their lives. Photo: File

As beloved pets slip into their final days or months of life, veterinarians can find themselves under pressure to apply useless or nonbeneficial care, researchers have found.

Nearly all veterinarians questioned in a recently published study had encountered what researchers called futile animal care in their careers. In many cases, it involves owners who are prepared to do anything to prolong the life of a pet.

The findings of the Cornell University-led study, reported in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, were based on responses to a 25-question online survey answered by 474 veterinarians – all of them in small animal practice.

More than 99% of them said they had encountered nonbeneficial or useless veterinary care, with 42% of them considering it common – occurring more than six times a year. The study team defined futile care as continuing treatment when relevant goals can no longer be reached.

“Before Cornell, I was in private practice in Los Angeles for 11 years,” said lead author Dr Nathan Peterson, an associate clinical professor and critical care specialist with the university’s veterinary school.

“When faced with a dilemma like this, I had an obligation to advocate for what I thought was in the best interest of the pet,” he told the Cornell Chronicle.

“But I also had an obligation to the owner. I couldn’t just do what I thought was right. It’s really quite distressing for the veterinarian and for the technicians and nurses who have to carry out the care.”

The study, co-authored by researchers at Harvard Medical School’s Center for Bioethics, found that 89% of surveyed veterinarians had administered futile care.

The veterinarians’ sense of obligation to pet owners was reflected in the data, with 60% of respondents agreeing that every treatment option is presented to owners, 76.3% agreeing that futile care benefited owners in some way, and 56.6% saying they sympathized with the owners’ feelings and wishes.

Paradoxically, the owner-centered approach can exacerbate moral distress for veterinarians and care teams, the authors wrote.

Previous research by co-authors showed that futile veterinary care was responsible for frequent and severe moral distress in the veterinary community, which occurs when a clinician believes they know the right thing to do but are prevented from doing it.

“We’re in the midst of a mental health crisis in our profession, and we’re very interested in whether futile care contributes to that, which I suspect it does,” Peterson said.

“We felt that a first step is documenting that it happens. My hope for the research is that it opens conversations around futile care, and hopefully professional organizations can take a leadership role and try to provide some guidance for how to resolve these conflicts.”

Factors that influenced veterinarians’ decisions to provide futile care included allowing time for owners to arrive to be present for euthanasia, satisfying an owner’s request that all treatment options be exhausted, and responding to the owners’ failure to understand the severity of the pet’s condition.

Peterson said these dilemmas have become more prevalent in recent years, as medical advances used for humans have become available in veterinary care.

“Now that we have dialysis, mechanical ventilation, a lot of technologies to keep patients alive – that’s really stretching the line about what kind of limits we are going to set around what’s in the best interest of the patient,” Peterson said.

To bring clarity to these gray areas, the authors suggest establishing a definition for futile care in the profession and developing guidance around how decisions for care are made. However, the veterinarians were not in total consensus about what futile care means.

A shared decision-making paradigm, where all stakeholders can agree on goals for treatment and whether or not they can be reached, could help, as well as a transparent, systematic approach to evaluating an owner’s ability to discuss and understand a diagnosis. Guidance and discussions are also needed around positive autonomy – the right to demand treatment.

“I think as a profession we have focused for so long on alleviating suffering by continuing treatment and making animals healthier,” Peterson said. “And we’re not as prepared to strongly advocate for euthanasia, to have those conversations, even when we think that’s the best way to alleviate suffering.”

In future research, Peterson hopes to investigate the impact of futile care on support staff.

“That feeling of powerlessness for the veterinarian is certainly magnified for the technicians who are often not involved in the decisions and who are directly responsible for providing care,” he said. “That really motivates me to look at the toll this is taking on them.”

Reporting: Caitlin Hayes, Cornell Chronicle

Medical futility is commonly encountered in small animal clinical practice
Nathan W. Peterson, J. Wesley Boyd and Lisa Moses
Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, May 18, 2022, https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.22.01.0033

The abstract can be read here

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