In my interview for Glasgow vet school, I was asked the question “how far is too far?”, and recent episodes of The Supervet on TV had me musing on the topic again, particularly as I had used The Bionic Vet as an example in my answer.
At the time I discussed kidney transplants in cats in the US and, in the UK, the inspiring work and pioneering techniques being carried out at Fitzpatrick Referrals.
Arguably the most famous patient of Noel Fitzpatrick’s is Oscar the cat who, after having both back paws cut off by a combine harvester, had prosthetic legs specially engineered and fitted (see video below). Oscar’s surgery was the first of its kind, and a huge step for orthopaedic veterinary medicine worldwide.
While this type of surgery was a world first in cats, prosthetic limbs are not an alien concept in human medicine – and, at a time when the emphasis on “One Health” becomes stronger every day, why shouldn’t routine or even rare human procedures extend their applications to our domestic species too?
But at what point do we say that medical advances are not ethically suitable for animals? A person may have a reasonable quality of life in a wheelchair, but that doesn’t mean a dog with wheels for back legs would. Such a “cart” would dramatically effect the quality of life of cats like Oscar, but his new legs have given him the freedom to continue to “be a cat”.
Each individual case is different, and the benefits and risks of undertaking a new, advanced technique would have to be weighed up accordingly. I don’t believe the point at which we draw the line on “going too far” is set in stone – every case is unique.
Kidney transplants in humans are life saving, and yet not seen in the UK in cats. A cat with kidney failure would gain a lot from a transplant, providing the risk of rejection was reduced to minimal. The ethical issue here lies with the health and welfare of the donor cat and the fact the donor can’t consent to its healthy organ being taken.
In the US, donors are often cats from rescue shelters and the recipient cat not only gains a new organ, but also an adopted friend who will come to live with them after the surgery. I think this is an excellent compromise on the consent dilemma – both cats get a second chance at life.
But it is not just the ethical question of whether we should perform such surgeries on our pets, we also have to consider the practical aspects of these procedures (i.e whether we could carry them out if we decided it was ethically acceptable).
There will be a limited number of vets with sufficient surgical experience to attempt such innovations, especially if a certain type of procedure has never been attempted in a particular species yet (such as Oscar’s legs). Financial constraints are also extremely relevant – owners that would love to give their animals the chance to receive such surgery if needed may be limited by the cost that comes with them.
Personally, I think the work of the surgeons at Fitzpatrick Referrals is exceptional and a real inspiration to vets across the country. I would love to see the day that treatment options for our animals routinely match those available in human medicine, and really hope the work of Noel and his team encourages those interested in such developments to continue and further research in order to make it a possibility – within ethical limits, of course.