Veterinarians' duty-of-care responsibilities

When examining and treating an animal, you have temporary custody of the animal and so have a duty of care. The duty of care includes:

  • appropriately handling the animal
  • providing appropriate conditions
  • when the animal is held, providing appropriate housing.

In deciding what is appropriate care, you must consider the animal's species, environment and circumstances, and the steps that you as a veterinarian would reasonably be expected to take under the circumstances.

If an animal in your custody is in pain, you should use analgesics appropriately. Any manipulations done without analgesia should be kept to a minimum (e.g. to assist in diagnosis).

A veterinarian's duty of care to an animal extends to members of staff associated with the practice.

Treatment decisions

Because the animal's owner, or owner's representative, retains a duty of care, they are responsible for deciding what, if any, treatment you offer will be given. In some cases, animal owners have been prosecuted for not following veterinary advice.

However, because you share this duty of care, you are responsible for giving the owner information about the animal welfare consequences of such decisions. If an animal suffers because of a decision (or lack of decision) by an owner who has been informed of the possible consequences, the owner is responsible.

Inability to pay for treatment

If the owner prefers a particular treatment but cannot pay for that treatment, you may wish to negotiate further options. As a vet, you have professional ethical considerations; however, under the Animal Care and Protection Act 2001, the owner is responsible for the animal. Their inability to pay does not pass that responsibility to you.

When an animal's owner is not known

If a person finds an injured animal and brings it to your practice, and the owner is not known, you assume a duty of care obligation if you accept the care of the animal.

If the animal's owner is then located, you will share the duty of care with the owner.

Read more about euthanasing animals where the animal's owner is not known.

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