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Ask a Vet: When Should I Be a Good Samaritan and Rescue a Suffering Kitty?

If you find an ailing or neglected cat, your urge to help might be strong; here's some guidance.

 |  Mar 11th 2014  |   21 Contributions


About a year ago a client brought an extremely elderly cat to my office. The old guy (he was 22 or 23) was suffering from a likely respiratory infection. He was also significantly underweight. Despite these facts, he was lively, his appetite was robust (according to the owner) and the owner felt that his quality of life was good.

I mentioned the cat's emaciation to the owner and enquired whether the owner would like to run some tests to get to the bottom of the matter. The owner replied that her cat had lived a long and good life, and that at his age the owner's goal was to focus on quality of life. At the current time she felt that his only significant issue with his quality of life was his sinus infection. She requested some antibiotics, and I was happy to prescribe them.

But then the plot thickened a bit. It turned out that this cat, who still, even in his 20s, roamed freely both indoors and outdoors, was a neighborhood institution. The owner told me that she already knew why the cat was underweight: He had kidney disease. She knew this because a well-meaning neighbor had noticed the cat's weight loss and had taken the cat to a veterinarian for blood tests.

Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta

The neighbor had advised the owner of the diagnosis, and had also advised the owner of her opinion that the cat should be put to sleep. The owner disagreed, believing that the cat was still enjoying his life (and from what I could tell the owner was right). Things were starting to get heated between the two; the neighbor thought the owner was negligent and the owner thought the neighbor should butt out.

Then the owner dropped a real bomb: She stated that she was afraid that the neighbor might catch the cat and have him euthanized. How, she asked, would I recommend that she prevent this?

Talking to the neighbor about the cat's quality of life was my first suggestion. Keeping him indoors also was high on my list.

The owner stated that both of these ideas would not work. The neighbor was convinced that euthanasia was the best choice, and her opinion would not be swayed. And according to the owner the cat would be miserable if kept indoors.

I was left with two suggestions: Contact local veterinarians to advise them of the situation, and contact an attorney to discuss some sort of restraining order (if such a thing is possible in matters like this). I also promised the owner that I personally would not euthanize the cat if he was brought in by anyone else. Fortunately that hasn't yet happened.

This story presents a tricky situation. It is not hard for a neighbor or a stranger to catch any outdoor cat and claim, falsely, to be the cat's owner to a veterinarian. The person could then request procedures -- ranging from vaccines to spays to euthanasia -- under those false pretenses. If a person claims to be a cat's owner, veterinarians will generally believe him or her. Veterinarians are not able to verify ownership independently. Furthermore, we are not allowed by law to do so. If a person claims to own a cat we cannot, for instance, legally scan the cat's microchip without the person's consent. All we can do is decline to perform the requested procedure if the situation seems sketchy.

This story reveals two of the pitfalls of being a Good Samaritan. First, sometimes Good Samaritans think they are doing the right thing when in fact the issue may be highly debatable. Second, behaving as a Good Samaritan may place an individual at risk of legal action. This risk of legal action exists even if a Good Samaritan performs an act that unquestionably helps the cat. (As my veterinary law professor said, never confuse doing the right thing with doing what's legal -- ethics and the law may have little in common.)

There are other potential pitfalls as well. It may be tempting to feed that friendly cat in your backyard who always seems hungry, but perhaps that cat has food allergies and requires a special diet. The "stray" who starts coming into your house during cold winter nights may be an owned but socially promiscuous cat whose owners spend those nights out in the neighborhood looking for him.

And there are special risks to handling cats who have been injured. A cat who has suffered significant trauma (after, for instance, having been hit by a car) may bite any person who gets near it. That proclivity poses a significant risk not only to potential Good Samaritans but also to the cat: By law, cats who bite people and then exhibit neurological irregularities (which are not uncommon after having been struck by a car) must be put to sleep in order to have their brains removed for rabies testing.

By now you may think the title of this piece is misleading. So far it has all been about what can go wrong with Good Samaritanism. Let's get to the point: When should a person behave as a Good Samaritan?

If you see a cat who appears to be suffering, the best bet is to get into contact with the owner. Try to convince him or her to do the right thing. If the owner refuses, I'd recommend that you call animal control rather than take matters into your own hands.

If you cannot identify an owner, then it's not unreasonable to take the cat to a vet yourself as long as you can do it safely and as long as you are forthright with the vet. It's also not unreasonable -- in fact, it's really better if time permits -- to contact animal control and let them deal with it. It's their job, after all.

If you know the owner and are confident that the owner would want the cat treated, but the owner can't be reached, then you may elect to take matters into your own hands. However, you'd better know the owner's desires well, or you could end up in a pitfall situation.

And what if you find an unknown, massively suffering cat by the side of the road with no identification? You worry that animal control might not respond for hours, and the cat will continue to suffer during that time. You are confident that you can transport the cat without injury to yourself. I think that most people would agree that common decency in such situations must prevail: The cat can't be left to suffer.

Finally, all cat owners should remember that cats who are kept indoors don't get hit by cars, attacked by dogs, picked up by animal control, or taken to veterinarians by well-meaning (or malicious) neighbors and strangers.

Have you ever run into situations like these? How did you act? Let us know in the comments.

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