Guidelines of the Veterinary Practitioners Registration Board of Victoria
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Guideline 18 - End of life veterinary services

This guideline outlines the appropriate standard expected of a registered veterinary practitioner in the course of veterinary practice. It should be read in conjunction with other related guidelines.

Context to Guideline 18: End of life veterinary services

The Board expects end of life veterinary services to be provided in accordance with expected behaviours and principles of professional conduct. A range of veterinary services is used to support an animal and its owner at the end of the animal’s life.

End of life veterinary services impact individuals, industry and the wider community. A veterinary practitioner’s training places them in a privileged position to advise and provide treatments to relieve an animal’s distress and pain when there is little likelihood it will recover its previous quality of life.

Most often in this situation, a veterinary practitioner, directed by the owner, will administer controlled medications or another method to euthanise the animal and induce a less painful death.

Compassionate communication about end of life is seen as an ethical responsibility and a core clinical skill and is integral to the veterinary practitioner–owner-animal (VOA) relationship. End of life care frequently requires a veterinary practitioner and an owner to make decisions of monumental consequence. The owner’s informed decision-making on end of life clinical management and treatment options relies on open sharing of relevant information.

A person who does or omits to do an act with the result that unreasonable pain or suffering is caused or is likely to be caused to an animal commits an act of cruelty upon that animal (Section 9 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (POCTA) Act 1986).

Under section 24D of the POCTA Act, a veterinary practitioner may euthanise an animal that:
  a) is behaving in such a manner and there are such circumstances that the veterinary practitioner reasonably believes that the animal is likely to cause death or serious injury to any person or another animal, or
  b) is abandoned, distressed or disabled and the veterinary practitioner reasonably believes that the animal’s condition is such that it would continue to suffer if it remained alive.

This privilege applies whether the animal is owned, the owner is not known, or the animal is a non-domesticated animal presented by a member of the public in an emergency situation. This privilege does not require owner consent. However, when a veterinary practitioner determines that such euthanasia is necessary, the Board recommends the veterinary practitioner discusses their plan with a professional peer.

A veterinary practitioner may have an ethical objection to euthanasia; for example, if they believe that other practical options exist that will satisfactorily alleviate an animal’s distress, disease or disability. This ethical objection should be disclosed to the owner and other options presented, which may include referral to another veterinary practitioner or the animal’s documented surrender or rehoming.

A veterinary practitioner considers a range of factors in proposing options for managing an animal’s end of life and in planning their communication with the owner of the animal. At times, a veterinary practitioner may need to reconcile the owner’s preference as to whether to accept end of life veterinary services with a potential impact on the public wellbeing and safety. Such factors may include:
  1. whether the animal is suffering from a notifiable disease and the possible exposure of other animals to such a disease
  2. whether the animal is a declared pest species or poses a biosecurity or other community threat
  3. rules for management of the animal under a racing or other code, and
  4. requirements or processes which may need to be fulfilled after the animal’s death, such as necropsy or responding to insurance claims.

Communication between an owner and a veterinary practitioner after the unexplained or unexpected death of an animal requires collaboration to resolve any issues rather than a focus on perceived shortcomings in the animal’s treatment or care.

A veterinary practitioner takes reasonable steps to satisfy themselves that an individual requesting euthanasia for an animal has the authority to do so. If the individual is not the owner, they should provide evidence to a veterinary practitioner that the owner has given them authority for end of life decision-making. Authority to make a decision about end of life veterinary services is not dependent on who is responsible for meeting the costs of end of life veterinary services.

Professional conduct under this guideline is demonstrated by the following:
18.1 A veterinary practitioner may euthanise an animal when it is distressed, diseased or disabled to such an extent that the animal’s condition cannot be satisfactorily relieved by veterinary care.
18.2 A veterinary practitioner offers euthanasia to an owner as an option to manage an animal’s distress, disease or disability when appropriate.
18.3 A veterinary practitioner supports an owner with relevant information to assist with their decision-making in relation to end of life veterinary services, including information on the reasons for euthanasia, the method of euthanasia, processes to determine the cause of an unexpected death (where relevant) and disposal of the animal’s remains.
18.4 Where a veterinary practitioner has an ethical objection to euthanising an animal, the veterinary practitioner must disclose their objection to the owner and offer the owner a referral to another veterinary practitioner.
In the event of an unexplained or unexpected death of an animal under their care, a veterinary practitioner provides an owner with information on arranging a necropsy, including any anticipated limitations to necropsy results.
18.6 A veterinary practitioner refers an owner to another veterinary practitioner to carry out a necropsy, unless it is not possible or practical to do so and the owner provides informed consent.

Related guidelines

Related legislation

Date of publication
In effect from 1 May 2021.

This material is current only at the time of publication and may be changed from time to time. The Board reviews and updates the Guidelines on a continuous basis to reflect changes in the science and knowledge base underpinning contemporary veterinary practice. The Board will take reasonable steps to inform the veterinary profession when such updates are released but it remains the responsibility of the individual veterinary practitioner to ensure that their knowledge and application of these Guidelines to their own practice is current.

While the Board has made every effort to ensure that the material in these Guidelines is correct in law, it shall not be liable to any veterinary practitioner or any other person or entity in relation to any claim, action or proceeding whatsoever (whether in contract, negligence or other tort or in proceedings seeking any other form of legal or equitable remedy or relief) for any inadequacy, error or mistake, or for any deficiency in the whole or any part of this document (including any updates incorporated in the document from time to time). A veterinary practitioner or any other person or entity acting upon the contents of this document acknowledges and accepts that this is the basis upon which the Board has produced these Guidelines and made them available to such person or entity.