Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Why does animal welfare matter in veterinary education?

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Welfare is relevent weather you work with companion animals, farm animals, wildlife or laboratory animals.

Why does animal welfare matter in veterinary education? It was the topic of yesterday’s annual RobertDixon Animal Welfare Memorial Symposium and it raised some interesting points.

For me, the short answer is, because in this day and age it makes sense to ask that question in the first place. Is there not an expectation that veterinarians will automatically be guardians of animal welfare, or is there too much perceived tension between the responsibility of maintaining and promoting animal welfare and our commercial and social interests in animal use?

So what is animal welfare? I tend to use the definition put forward by James Yeates (Yeates, J (2013) Animal Welfare in Veterinary Practice. UFAW Animal Welfare Series. London: Wiley-Blackwell).

“Animal welfare, loosely defined, is about what is good and bad for animals – what is important for them to achieve and what is important for them to avoid. Veterinary work is about achieving states that are good for animals, such as health and enjoyment of life, and avoiding states that are bad, such as pain and illness” (Yeates, 2013, p1).

As veterinarians it is our professional responsibility to look after the interests of animals first and foremost. Consider the following veterinary oaths:
“Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge. I will practice my profession conscientiously, with dignity, and in keeping with the principles of veterinary medical ethics. I accept as a lifelong obligation the continual improvement of my professional knowledge and competence.” 
Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons:
“I promise and solemnly declare that I will pursue the work of my profession with integrity and accept my responsibilities to the public, my clients, the profession and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and that, ABOVE ALL, my constant endeavour will be to ensure the health and welfare of animals committed to my care.
I solemnly swear to practice veterinary science ethically and conscientiously for the benefit of animal welfare, animal and human health, users of veterinary services and the community. I will endeavour to maintain my practise of veterinary science to current professional standards and will strive to improve my skills and knowledge through continuing professional development. I acknowledge that along with the privilege of acceptance into the veterinary profession comes community and professional responsibility. I will maintain these principles throughout my professional life.” 
[Emphasis added. You can read about "veterinarians who swear" (oaths, that is) here].

In other words, animal welfare is prioritised, it is central to our work, and according to our professional organisations, right now at least, animal welfare is our reason for being.

It does make you wonder why, then, animal welfare groups are merely special interest groups within the profession. That one can join the AVA's welfare and ethics group as one might join the Equine Veterinary Association or the Unusual Pets and Avian Vets group.

The questions asked by students and members of the public and organisations that attended were really telling and insightful. One theme that came through for me was a concern on the part of some students that being seen to support animal welfare may antagonise certain individuals, groups, industries etc and be bad for one’s career.

There is a fear that investigating, researching and committing to improving animal welfare is mutually exclusive with animal use. I don’t believe this is the case – but I do believe we need to be thoughtful about our use of animals and as scientists we are obliged to constantly ask and investigate, is this appropriate use and care of animals?

Animals are sentient beings with thoughts, emotions and a capacity to suffer. Our ability to appreciate this means we are obligated, even in the context of animal use, to treat them – as much as possible – as ends in themselves rather than simply means to our own ends.

We need to decide if veterinarians belong to a profession or an industry. If we belong to a profession then we must act independently of industry, and provide information based on our expertise and evidence rather than simply provide data that supports industry and understate or mask data that goes against the goals of the industry which employs us. Good scientists should not be defensive. We should be open to new ideas, able to critically evulate data and committed to change based on the best possible evidence.

We need to acknowledge that sometimes welfare is compromised due to the interests of humans. These may be commercial interests, ideology, emotional attachments, denial – either way, there are many forces that may cause us to disregard animal welfare. All the more reason to educate veterinary students about this.

What can students and veterinarians do about an animal welfare problem? Two things. Deal with the situation in front of you, for example, if it is a patient you need to do your best to assist that patient. The second is to consider the bigger picture. Talk to and join your professional association, if it’s a welfare problem affecting a particular species, talk to experts who work with that species. If you are a student, talk to someone on the Faculty. Find out more.

Join the professional organisation in your country/region/state and make sure you vote, have your say when policies are circulated for comment.

Read and learn as much as you can about the particular issue. What is the evidence base supporting current practice? What are potential areas for improvement?

Role model excellent animal handling, husbandry and stewardship.

What about your ideas?

I am grateful to the late Dr Dixon’s family for the opportunity to be part of such an event.