Do you – or should you – tattoo?

DOG TATTOOThe Brooklyn tattoo artist who reportedly tattooed his dog must now wish he hadn’t exposed his proud deed on Instagram. Mistah Metro – aka Orangutan Joe, aka Alex – is supposed to have tattooed the “zonked out” Zion after the patient had undergone a splenectomy. Mr Mistah Metro has prompted a public backlash and raised the strange question of whether it is acceptable to decorate animals in this way. To flesh out this tattooing question, let’s imagine two veterinarians who have different takes on what is and what isn’t acceptable treatment.

FIRST VET: The public reaction to the tattooed dog may well have been unnecessarily vitriolic and indeed excessive at times. However, it is true that the adornment of animals with tattoos is unethical, and this action sets a bad precedent that others may want to follow. Sure, it is not wrong to tattoo an animal for certain reasons, such as for identification and neutering. But in these cases there are real interests being served, including the interests of the animals themselves. Even here there may be limits – for example, the permanent ink mark should perhaps be discrete, as it is in the case of neuter tattoos. But the Brooklyn dog’s tattoo was both prominent and unnecessary.

As far as we know in the Brooklyn case the patient may not have been fully anesthetised at the time of the tattooing. Now it is clearly unacceptable to submit a sentient animal to a potentially painful procedure without adequate control of pain and discomfort. Those of us in the veterinary profession know well that a dog may be sedated yet still capable of feeling pain and fear. But it would also be wrong to give an animal a general anaesthetic, or significantly extend the length of one, knowing the risks (however small) that a GA carries, simply in order to decoratively tattoo that animal.

I note that the imposition of a tattoo is done for the sake of the person and not the animal. No wonder then that people have criticised the artist for acting out of vanity and selfishness. His dog, Zion, could not consent voluntarily to the tattoo and has no personal interest in a Cupid-style ode to the tattooist’s wife. Similarly, we would not place decorative tattoos on adults or children who could not provide informed consent.

In fact the tattoo does more than exhibit the offensive conceit of the dog’s caretaker. It potentially subjects the dog to ridicule, and moreover, is in itself a degrading or undignified form of treatment of an animal. I think this is so even though the animal cannot know that it is being ridiculed or degraded. (Neither could a young child or a baby.) I believe that vets should refuse to cooperate in the tattooing of animal patients.

SECOND VET: My colleague makes some good points. In particular, a “harm principle” should be followed. That is, the patient should not be subjected to risk unless there is some genuine good to come of it. Often, that will mean that the risky procedure benefits the animal. But sometimes the benefit will be for the owner, and this is acceptable so long as it is balanced against the degree of harm to the patient.

As my colleague mentions, there are two scenarios here. The first scenario is when an animal is given a GA for some other reason and is tattooed under that same anaesthetic. Assuming that tattooing is not in itself a substantial health risk, I can’t see much wrong with this. I would further point out that it is different from, say, the docking of tails. Tail docking has rightly been made illegal, in some places at least, because it probably can harm animals in various ways. Not so for tattooing; this is by contrast a benign procedure.

The second scenario is when an animal is anaesthetised solely for the sake of decorative tattooing. One should have more reservations about this case, in my opinion, because the GA does carry some risk. And yet I cannot convince myself that it would be totally unacceptable, for two reasons. Firstly, the GA risk is very small.

Secondly, the owner may have a strong wish to tattoo their animal. The point here is that we should not judge such a person merely because we have a personal distaste for tattooing, even tattooing animals. We should rather place weight on the freedom of a person to exercise their liberty, so long as they do not unduly harm other people or, indeed, animals. Owners who go to the trouble of tattooing their animals may look after them very well, and may carefully weigh up the pros and cons before proceeding.

Let’s be clear about this: the animal is not harmed by being tattooed even though it cannot give informed consent. After all, an animal cannot give voluntary permission to the “imposition” of fancy leads and collars, yet we do not call that cruel or degrading. No doubt, some tattoos might be tasteless. But the animal hardly cares! If a client asked for my help to safely tattoo their dog or cat, I don’t see that I necessarily have the right to refuse.