Sir Henry’s Law

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I’ll begin by saying I try to remove myself from politics whenever possible.  There are inner powers at play that go beyond my comprehension, and when you know little of the mechanisms, it’s best to steer clear until you do.  However, there are times to explore something deeper to understand why it exists and what political decisions will mean for the rest of us going forward.

Since around 2014, the New York State Senate has considered the enactment of a bill known as Sir Henry’s Law.  Part of the agriculture and markets law, the bill would require the informed consent of the owner of a companion animal prior to euthanizing such animal, in a truthful and easy to understand manner.  This reads very honest, pure, and within the normal ethical code veterinarian’s seek to practice in vet med.  Euthanasia of an owned animal currently requires consent by both parties; as it should to ensure the best interests of the animal in question.  This kind of safeguard has been around for some time now and thus the bill begs the question, what happened prior to 2014 that led someone to want to pursue change in New York law?  Was a veterinarian untruthful in the way they presented/performed euthanasia and the owner felt deceived?

While there are many parts to Sir Henry’s Law, I’ll focus on those that have me questioning how they can best be carried out if enacted. The bill would require the following parameters be met each time euthanasia is performed.  The veterinarian must discuss:

  • The various methods which can be utilized to humanely euthanize
  • The benefits and risks of each such method;
  • The negative impacts upon the animal of each such method;
  • The alternative method of humane euthanasia to be utilized if the preferred method cannot be achieved.
  • The negative impacts and risks of the alternative method
  • Questions the companion animal owner has with regard to euthanizing the pet.

Yes a veterinarian can address these things, especially the last one about answering the owner’s questions.  It is our responsibility to give voice to the owner and ensure they feel safe and trust in the process.  However, what the bill is asking for may likely push the boundaries of comfortable, safe conversation during a very delicate time.   How much information is acceptable and tolerable to a grieving owner?  What is the likelihood the owner will deny a veterinarian the ability to proceed if they don’t like the chosen method?  Informed consent means the owner knows enough details to either approve or deny what takes place next. 

To fully lay out these parameters with an owner, I suspect the veterinarian may need upwards of 15 minutes.  Euthanasia is a complicated procedure wherein veterinarians must weigh many factors for the protection of animal welfare and the mental well-being of all involved.  The Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy (CAETA) has built a 10-hour course on the subject of euthanasia and it’s complexities, proof there is much to cover.   For the average dog or cat, there are 5 different euthanasia methods that would need to be reviewed. They all have their own benefits and risks.  Talking through the breadth of this information could overwhelm the owner and detract away from the bond and saying goodbye.  We are talking about highly clinical stuff here, shared with owners who in my experience don’t even like seeing needles.  If not enough information is shared, such as a veterinarian feeling the owner does not need all the details, we may find ourselves falling short of the law if passed.

If the goal of this law is to keep the owner informed of what’s going to take place, perhaps a digital explanation for pre-appointment review would meet everyone’s needs.  Owners can be made aware of such information to read if they choose, but not be forced to hear details in the heat of the moment.  And if the goal is to grant method/technique choices to the owner, such that they can indicate which technique they want for their pet or to direct the actions of the veterinarian, I can’t say I’m a fan.  This would not be normal for other appointment types in vet med, or human med either.  The owner must rely on the judgement of the veterinarian at the time and the veterinarian must follow best practices, including the guidelines set forth by the American Veterinary Medical Association or other governing body.

Trust and proper training are the key elements to all this.  My guess is this law comes on the heels of a dysthanasia.  Trust in the veterinary team may have fallen short.  There could have been a lack of even the most basic communication.  And when you read the bill, one can submise it had something to do with an intracardiac injection gone awry.   The owner perceived wrongdoing in such an intense way as to act to prevent it from happening again. 

I do hope to someday hear the full backstory of this proposed law, and applaud those who seek positive change.  Let’s make it attainable and in line with good stewardship for this most delicate of procedures.  To me, this means building trust from the onset, providing ‘just the right amount’ of information to not overwhelm, and delivering euthanasia techniques the right way.  

To be continued…

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Dr. Kathleen Cooney

DVM, CHPV, CPEV, DACAW resident Founder, Senior Director of Education for the Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy

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