Profession's mindset shifts on welfare


Cleveland-A line has been drawn. Veterinarians in favor of increasing welfare standards, raising pet worth and dismantling sow gestation stalls hold steadfast on one side.

Cleveland-A line has been drawn. Veterinarians in favor of increasing welfare standards, raising pet worth and dismantling sow gestation stalls hold steadfast on one side. Those calling for strict science-based evidence before instituting welfare changes remain on the other.

That's how experts tracking trend lines in veterinary medicine view a growing divide among DVMs who tend to be closely aligned with animal agriculture and those far removed from its economic system. While many food animal veterinarians claim they're losing a public relations battle on some longstanding production practices, those in small animal medicine cite ethical arguments challenging "inhumane" housing and health systems. Whether generational issues, gender gaps or societal pressures are to blame for the growing dissension, one thing is clear - welfare standards in veterinary medicine are at a crossroads, and an increasing number of practitioners are joining the debate.

"There's no question, veterinarians are more concerned about animal welfare," says Bernard Rollin, Colorado State University's bioethicist and professor of philosophy, agriculture and biomedical sciences. "The profession's mindset is changing, which probably stems from generational and cultural gaps in veterinary medicine. The best examples are the controversies with sow stalls and forced molting. It will be interesting to see how AVMA deals with that."

Changing course

Debate concerning sow gestation crates and forced molting intensified last July, when American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) delegates faced-off as to whether or not the respective farming practices are humane. While a resolution opposing forced molting failed, delegates, in an impromptu decision, voted to further research whether sow gestation stalls are welfare-friendly. The move struck a chord with AVMA members like Dr. Thomas Burkgren, who expects the issue might resurface when the delegates meet for the association's annual convention in July. At presstime, AVMA Executive Board members appointed taskforce members as mandated by the 2003 proposal. Burkgren, who favors the longstanding, science-based farming practices, views the mandated research as a lack of understanding among colleagues. Less than 2 percent of Americans derive their income from agriculture, he says, and that translates to veterinarians.

"I was surprised when the AVMA delegates chose to ignore science in favor of that resolution," says Burkgren, head of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians. "As veterinarians supporting agriculture, we're good at scientific debate, but the emotional debate is tougher. To our detriment, we've discussed science too much and have not framed some major ethical questions like what's natural behavior? Are domesticated animals different from farm animals? And should we even be using animals as a food source?"

Evidence of a shift

While the questions are broad and somewhat lofty, it's evident veterinary students are considering them, says Dr. Jim Wilson, an attorney and DVM tracking the welfare movement. That's apparent in their reactions to recent public efforts to hold veterinarians responsible for reporting suspected client violations on animal cruelty laws. At presstime, Oregon became the nation's latest state to pass such a statute.

"Probably 80 percent of my students believe veterinarians should be required to report animal cruelty, which speaks to animal welfare," says Wilson, an adjunct professor at University of Pennsylvania's veterinary school. "It's an issue that, as a profession, we've fought against being held accountable for. These younger veterinarians, they have a remarkably different perspective of animal welfare and the law."

Tracking a trend

It's a perspective Dr. Billy Hooper, former head of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC), predicted would take hold. The trend line, especially regarding companion animals, is observed in the public's demand for high-quality veterinary care and success of the human-animal bond. That was evident 15 years ago, he says.

"Between the time I entered the profession in 1960 and became executive director of AAVMC in 1990, the movement toward increased animal welfare was significant," Hooper says. "But in the last 14 years, it's moved even faster. Nowadays, it's a very different world for food animal and equine practitioners. Welfare is moving with the same society-driving forces as companion animals. Certainly, one senses it at every turn."

Student reaction

Dr. Jim Reynolds, a dairy clinician with the Veterinary Teaching and Research Center at the University of California, Davis, fosters it in the classroom. The food animal professor recently shared with students a report from Farm Sanctuary. The activist group mailed surveys to nearly 70,000 U.S. veterinarians on the AVMA's official positions on welfare standards, just 1,245 surveys were returned. The result: Those polled reacted "objectionably" to AVMA-backed agriculture practices such as using veal stalls and gestation crates.

While the study was not peer-reviewed, it certainly incites debate, Reynolds says.

"Some of my colleagues view the document's questions as potentially biased and leading, and they don't trust Farm Sanctuary's results," Reynolds says. "My reaction is that despite coming from an activist group, it's a fair and useful survey. Students have responded well to it. It promotes healthy discussion, even if there's no way to verify the results."

True animal welfarists

AVMA has no public reaction to the document, but Dr. Gail Golab, the association's assistant director for professional and public affairs, notes that the shift to reconsider animal welfare standards does not solely come from within the profession.

"There's a public focus, directed toward veterinary medicine," she says. "Yes, you see some changes in the veterinary profession because the percentage of food animal veterinarians is much smaller than it used to be. It reflects how much people are exposed to animal agriculture."

It's also important to emphasize that the profession has always been about animal welfare, Golab says. And it's veterinarians who will continue to champion animal welfare, Rollin adds.

"I have tremendous faith in the veterinary profession," he says. "The future of rational animal welfare is veterinarians. They have one foot in each camp."

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