The new welfare war

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Americans today are wrestling with the value of their pets and the laws protecting animals more than ever before. And experts say veterinarians are, and should be, at the center of the debate.

Americans today are wrestling with the value of their pets and the laws protecting animals more than ever before. And experts say veterinarians are — and should be — at the center of the debate.

Californians recently passed Proposition 2, requiring farmers to house animals in ways that allow them to lie down, stand up, extend limbs and turn around freely. Proposition 2 was just one of many measures working their way through state legislatures, including bans on declawing cats and devocalizing dogs.

Equine veterinarians have been pulled into the fray over the divisive issue of horse slaughter. As the economy tumbles, horse-rescue groups have been unable to keep up with the demand of housing abandoned horses. Many wonder whether an earlier ban on slaughtering unwanted horses for meat for export isn't less cruel than abandonment or starvation.

In the law-enforcement world, animal-welfare issues continue to gain ground. In July authorities organized the largest bust of alleged dog-fighting operations in the nation's history, spanning eight states and taking in roughly 500 dogs. Dr. Melinda Merck, senior director of veterinary forensics for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), assisted authorities.

And the question of greater damage in court for lost or killed pets is percolating at a slow boil.

In a case closely watched by animal- law experts — like Dr. Kent McClure, JD, general counsel for the animal-industry group Animal Health Institute (AHI) — an appeals court in California ruled against a plaintiff seeking emotional damages for the loss of a dog to veterinary malpractice.

But animal welfare isn't easy to figure out, even for experts. The best use and treatment of animals is a balancing act, involving both measurable medical factors, like rates of injury and disease and animal behavior, and societal ethics, according to Dr. Gail Golab, head of the American Veterinary Medical Association's (AVMA) Animal Welfare Division.

The big picture

Golab's division helps the AVMA make science-based decisions about animal welfare that are grounded in data. How does a new drug, a new training technique or a new type of housing affect stress levels, incidence of disease and other measurable factors? But there's always society to consider. "Veterinary medicine is a service industry, and we serve society," she says. "The public also determines what it is or is not comfortable with in the care of animals."

The reality is, while veterinarians are at the forefront of animal-welfare issues, they are not — and should not be — alone. That interdisciplinary reality of animal welfare, involving animal scientists, ethicists, economists and sociologists, has sometimes been challenging for veterinarians. "We're scientists, and we like things that can be reduced to data," Golab says. "Animal welfare isn't one of those things."

Veterinarians are a part of the future of animal welfare, but what will that future look like?

Doctors and the law

Right now, veterinarians benefit from the fact that pet owners spend far more on veterinary care than their animals are worth as property. That's a fundamental paradox at the heart of small-animal veterinary practice today, according to Dr. James F. Wilson, JD, a veterinary consultant and author of the book Law and Ethics of the Veterinary Profession. Wilson has watched the status of pets' value to families grow through the years, and he says veterinarians are taking advantage of flying under the legal radar. So far.

It's Wilson's opinion that veterinarians and veterinary associations must be at the forefront of efforts to expand economic damages for loss of pets beyond mere market or replacement value.

"We all know we're relying on that human-animal bond for the success of our practices," he says. "And we have to recognize that that success results in costs for veterinary care that frequently are well above the value of the pet as property."

Wilson says recent legislation in Nevada and Maryland is heading in the right direction. Owners of injured or dead pets in those states can recover veterinary costs connected to negligent acts — with a $5,000 or $7,500 cap, respectively — regardless of the pets' market or replacement value.

Legislation like this acknowledges that Americans are spending more on their pets and that pets are more important to families than ever. Allowing for this legal step forward doesn't necessarily open up the door for noneconomic damages for pain and suffering, which could climb into the millions. Wilson says caps take away the financial motivation for attorneys to exploit this area of the law. That will help keep down costs of professional liability insurance.

Not everyone agrees. Caps are a poor option, says AHI's McClure, adding that they've been judged unconstitutional in a number of states and, even when they're in place, they rise over time. "With higher damages, a few pet owners will win the litigation lottery but most pets will suffer."

Increased damages will lead to higher insurance premiums, forcing veterinarians to practice extremely expensive defensive medicine to avoid lawsuits and pricing many out of veterinary care, McClure adds.

"If your policy is to create access to care for pet owners, you choose one path," he says. "If your goal is to say a rat is a pig is a dog is a child, then you choose another path."

McClure admits the appeal of economic damages for loved pets that are injured or die, but says courts have traditionally limited emotional damages — even for people. You can't receive emotional damages if your grandmother dies because of malpractice, he says. Pet owners aren't likely to receive emotional damages anytime soon.

On animal cruelty

As society increases the penalties for animal cruelty, veterinarians more than ever will become the first line of defense for abused patients as well as the witnesses for local animal-control departments and humane societies. That's the hope of the ASPCA's Merck.

When she reported her first instance of animal cruelty, a discovery in her private-practice exam room, police officers were surprised. No veterinarian had ever come to them before. It was a good first case for Merck because the defendants pleaded guilty, so time out of practice and in court wasn't an issue.

But Merck thinks good things will come to veterinarians who make a point of reporting animal-cruelty cases they see and assisting local authorities in cases outside their clinics.

"My clients at the time loved it," she says, as she became more and more involved in veterinary forensics. "I'd be in an exam room sometimes and get that police call. I'd tell the client, 'I'm sorry, but I have to go,' and they'd say, 'That's OK. Are you going to be on the 6 o'clock news? I want to call my friends.' "

As she got involved in more local and national crimes, her clinic team was rejuvenated.

"They became a part of something bigger than the daily blood draws and X-rays," she says. "They would stay late to work on cases, and my staff turnover dropped."

Fighting animal cruelty and protecting animal welfare winds up directly helping people as well, Merck says. A recent case involving a beaten dog that had to be euthanized took police to the home of the accused. They found a young boy who was bruised. Violence against animals and violence against people went hand-in-hand. "Both parents were arrested, and it was the animal cruelty that the veterinarian reported that started it," she says.

Merck talks about veterinary forensics across the country and sees veterinarians taking a growing role in reporting and helping prosecute crimes. "It's the investigators' job, but we can help," she says.

As the connection between crimes against people and crimes against animals is strengthened, Merck hopes for a day when special courts, special prosecutors and on-staff veterinarians will be a part of law enforcement nationwide.

In the meantime, vigilance in the exam room is crucial, she says. "We're never walking into that exam room thinking there's cruelty," Merck says.

"So when your radar goes off, when you're suspicious, you're probably right. It's that part of the medical work-up and clients' explanations that don't fit that should set off the alarm bells."

On the farm

The success of Proposition 2 is the latest proof that animal-welfare organizations are taking their fight directly to the voters to change the way farms house, restrain and treat chickens, pigs and cattle.

The future is cloudy as to whether changes in food-animal welfare will come from outside pressure from animal-welfare organizations or internal change on the farm, but one thing's for sure: The question is much bigger than the few paragraphs in Proposition 2.

"We're starting to see outside forces claiming they're the experts in animal welfare," says Bonnie V. Beaver, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVB, an animal behaviorist in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences at Texas A&M University. "We need to step up to reassure the public that veterinarians are experts in this area and the reasons why we are."

The push for free-range chickens sounds good, Beaver says, but freedom of movement is just one aspect of a whole holistic approach to animal welfare.

New techniques will need to address both societal perceptions of the need for animal freedom as well as positive benefits for the food animals and farmers. And food-animal veterinarians, farmers and animal-industry workers do care about their animals, says Dr. Janice Swanson, director of animal welfare at Michigan State University. But it's a different caring than that of pet owners and small-animal veterinarians, who see animals, ideally, live out long lives.

"There's a respect for animals' nature," Swanson says. "Farmers and workers know the purpose of these animals, to produce and to feed people, and their management reflects that. They want to give the animals quality of life, to know they've lived decently right up to the point where they are humanely dispatched."

Quality of life, Swanson says, will be a central issue. "What values and scientific information will we apply in determining quality of life for a farm animal?" she asks. "And how will we best secure that quality of life?"

It's crucial for veterinarians of all kinds — small-animal, large-animal, food-animal, exotic, zoo — to learn about and understand the work of peers in other fields, she says. Just don't dismiss food-animal veterinarians out of hand as uncaring and in the pocket of the industry, says Dr. John Deen, associate professor of veterinary population medicine at the University of Minnesota.

Small-animal practitioners have a conflict of interest in promoting the importance of the human-animal bond to the economic benefit of their practices. "We all have conflicts of interest," Deen says. "But to say that my conflict of interest nullifies my expertise stops me cold."

In society

Who will speak for animals?

More and more, society is asking the experts difficult questions such as these:

How can food animals be housed in physically and behaviorally healthy ways? What constitutes humane slaughter? What is a pet worth? What does an animal deserve in its life?

Often these are questions for veterinarians — not just the professional ethicist or the expert, but every veterinarian who receives the questions in his/her exam room, during farm visits or in classrooms nationwide.

It's the hope of leaders in the veterinary field that every veterinarian will take on that mantle of public leadership, if only by answering questions one-on-one.

"From Day 1, every veterinarian is involved in animal welfare," says Beaver.

"Our concern is always the humane life and the humane death."

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