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Standards & Advice update: September 2021

This month’s Standards & Advice update is a case study looking at some of the issues around consent and conflict of interest in regard to the rehoming of animals treated by veterinary practices.

This case study was produced on the recommendation of the RCVS Standards Committee following a number of reported issues, highlighted by the PIC/DC Liaison Committee, around practices not making their rehoming protocols clear when seeking consent from clients to sign over ownership of the animal to the practice.

This case study is fictional and not based on any single particular example but is an amalgam of various cases we have dealt with.

Conflicts of interest – Rehoming of animals with practice staff

Sam is a veterinary surgeon who attended an emergency consultation for a two-year-old Dachshund called King. King had been seriously injured in a road traffic accident and it was clear that he would need extensive treatment in order to recover.

Sam stabilised King and then had a discussion with King’s owner, Julie. They discussed King’s condition and the treatment options available, including the estimated costs. Sam also raised the option of euthanasia. Julie was very distressed and explained that she couldn’t afford to pay for extensive treatment but would like Sam to do everything that they could within her budget to keep King comfortable while she looked for other finance options.  

The next day, Julie called the practice to let them know that she has been unable to find any financial support and was worried that they would have to put King to sleep. Sam gave Julie another option – as King is so young, the practice could take ownership of the dog, treat him, and rehome him. Sam did not give specific details as to how King would be rehomed, but Julie presumed this would be through a local shelter or charity. Sam made it clear to Julie that she would no longer be the owner of King and would not have an input into his care. Julie agreed to sign over King under these terms.

King spent a week as an in-patient at the practice. He was cared for primarily by RVN Katie, and the two formed a solid bond. Katie suggested that she could rehome King once he was fit to be discharged and Sam agreed.

In the meantime, Julie had been calling for daily updates on King, and was pleased to hear that a new owner had been found, although Julie was not told that it was a practice staff member who would be taking King on.   

Once King was fully recovered and living with Katie, the practice posted a picture of King on their Facebook page, with a comment about how well he was getting on living with Katie and how pleased the rest of the staff are to get to see him so often. Julie saw this post and was furious, she felt that the practice had manipulated her into relinquishing her ownership of King just so that Katie could adopt him.

Julie called Sam and claimed that this was  a clear conflict of interest as it seems like they intentionally did not tell her about Katie adopting King. Sam acknowledged that they had not considered how Julie may have interpreted the situation, but assured Julie that Katie had not even met King when their agreement was made, and that the practice had no intention of rehoming King with a staff member at the time. Sam apologised for the situation and agreed to update the practice protocol to make sure there was clearer communication when the practice took on an animal for re-homing in the future.

Learning points

The following paragraphs of the RCVS Code of Professional Conduct are of particular relevance to this scenario:

2.2  Veterinary surgeons must provide independent and impartial advice and inform a client of any conflict of interest.

2.4  Veterinary surgeons must communicate effectively with clients, including in written and spoken English, and ensure informed consent is obtained before treatments or procedures are carried out.

Practices are entitled to come to an agreement with a client to sign over their animal for treatment and rehoming, however the terms of this agreement need to be understood by both parties.

Just as with a consent conversation with a client, a veterinary surgeon or registered veterinary nurse should make sure that, where an animal is to be signed over to be treated by the practice and then rehomed, the client is fully informed of the practice’s protocol, including that there is a possibility that the animal may be rehomed with practice staff. Without this agreement, there could be a perceived or actual conflict of interest created by the staff member adopting the animal.

Please see Chapter 11 of the supporting guidance for more information on Communication and Consent.

September 2021