The now infamous story of the accidentally euthanized cat in Massachusetts first splashed across my computer screen on Monday morning. Soon it was all over the Internet.
A cat named Lady was taken to a veterinary office in Massachusetts for a bath. The owner’s son, who delivered the cat, signed what he thought was a patient registration form. However, the form was something else entirely — it was a consent to euthanize the cat. Lady was subsequently euthanized, and the horrible mistake was discovered when the son returned a short while later to deliver another cat for a bath.
The inevitable question arises: How did this tragedy occur, and how could it have been prevented?
First, let me be emphatic that I don’t believe we should pass judgement until we have all the facts. Of course it is tempting to accuse the vet of carelessness (or for that matter, to blame the son who signed the euthanasia consent form). But these sorts of calamities generally have many causes.
Mistakes are a part of being human, and medical professionals are most definitely human. Although I have known several who seem to believe they’re gods, I can assure you that they’re not. While massive errors such as this are in no way excusable, they are sadly inevitable.
Stories of similarly horrific mistakes abound in human medicine. An acquaintance of mine worked in a human pathology lab. One day her laboratory received a tissue sample from a mastectomy; the pathologists’ job was to determine whether all of the cancerous tissue had been removed along with the breast. However, they found no cancerous tissue whatsoever, and came to a horrible conclusion: The wrong breast had been removed. I have read similar stories involving limb amputations and enucleations (removal of eyes).
Most hospitals have protocols to reduce these sorts of errors. For instance, prior to knee surgery patients often must clearly indicate, using a marker, which knee is to undergo the procedure.
In a similar vein, veterinarians can take steps to avoid this sort of incredibly regrettable tragedy.
This sort of problem is exponentially more likely to occur when the animal’s owner is not present. If the owner is too distraught to attend the procedure, I still prefer to check in with him or her to offer my sympathies if nothing else.
Euthanasia is a very big deal, and inexperienced staffers should not be tasked with admitting patients for euthanasia. I prefer that the same experienced staff member admit and then stay with the pet until the procedure.
If a staff member brings me a cat whose owner wants its nails trimmed, that’s one thing. Euthanasia is something else altogether. Especially if the cat appears healthy, many vets want to know why they have been asked to euthanize the cat. An ever increasing number of veterinarians (including me) now decline to perform “convenience euthanasias.” In other words, we perform the procedure only when we believe it is in the best interest of a suffering animal.
Before performing euthanasia, I repeatedly confirm that the paperwork is in order . I check and recheck that I’m working with the correct animal. I make sure that the animal’s condition appears appropriate for euthanasia. I try to confirm that the person who signed the consent form was over 18, and is in fact the owner and not a malicious individual. But even then, I still worry that I could make a mistake.
To date, these tactics have worked, but I do not delude myself. No matter how careful you are, accidents are always possible. I will continue to be hypervigilant, but I also recognize that fortune plays a role in these types of situations. Trust me: Making this sort of mistake is every vet’s worst nightmare.
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