Research Priorities of the American Veterinary Medical Association

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The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) represents the veterinary medical profession and, as of 2012, includes more than 82,600 member veterinarians, or approximately 82 percent of the veterinary medical professionals in the United States. Included in this membership is a formidable resource for tackling existing and emerging scientific problems related to both animal and human health, including more than 10,600 veterinarians with advanced training in fields such as nutrition, toxicology, epidemiology, microbiology, parasitology, pathology, laboratory animal medicine, and a multitude of veterinary clinical specialties. Further, more than 15% of the AVMA membership has a graduate degree in addition to their DVM degree, including ~ 4200 DVM/PhD members. The mission of the AVMA includes the improvement of animal and human health. To fulfill this, the AVMA is committed to advancing the science and art of veterinary medicine, including its relationship to public health, biologic science, and agriculture. The AVMA has a long history of commitment to advocating for improved food safety and security, advanced veterinary medical education, enhanced animal and human health and welfare, strengthened biomedical research, and fostering environmental quality.  Moving towards the future, the AVMA has identified the following research-related issues as high priority:

Research and / or programs that address or support:

  • Clinical research for the benefit of animal health
  • Infectious and zoonotic diseases of animals and humans
  • Environmental issues relating to animal and human well being
  • Food security and food safety
  • Enhanced animal welfare and the human-animal bond
  • Basic and translational research on human and animal disease
  • Training veterinarians for the research workforcel

Background and rationale:

Clinical research for the benefit of animal health. Research that enhances animal health through prevention and improved treatments of animal disease is essential to the mission of the AVMA. Translated medical discoveries improve the practice of veterinary medicine, enhance the value of veterinary care to patients and clients, and are fundamental to the continued advancement of our profession.  Veterinary colleges, research institutes, animal health companies, and often veterinary practices play a vital role in the continued development of medical procedures, advanced devices, and new pharmaceuticals. Funding for translational research that improves animal health is extremely limited and expansion of funding sources through communication to the public is a major goal of the AVMA.

Infectious and zoonotic diseases of animals. Veterinary researchers are an essential component of the research infrastructure that protects the health of animals and humans. Over the past few decades, there has been resurgence in the occurrence of infectious diseases and the ability of microbial and viral agents to establish new niches or undergo genetic mutations has led to the appearance of new diseases. In addition, there is increasing evidence that antibiotic drug resistance of disease causing bacterial agents has reduced the effectiveness of treatments of animal and human diseases. Concern is being raised about the source of the resistance factors, and whether antibiotic use in animals may increase the appearance of antibiotic resistance in human pathogens.

Infectious and zoonotic diseases such as Lyme disease, Hantavirus infections, cryptosporidiosis, and immunodeficiency virus of animals and man have occurred in spite of the impression that infectious diseases were largely controlled. Some previously controlled diseases have re-emerged as important health problems, partly because of the large number of immunosuppressed individuals throughout the world. The pace at which new infectious diseases emerge in animals and man will increase due to climate change, growth of human and food animal populations, the rise in international travel and globalization of trade. It is increasingly important to monitor, identify, and control diseases as they emerge. Established regulatory programs for zoonotic diseases like brucellosis, tuberculosis, salmonellosis, and rabies can serve as a model for this. To meet the increasing challenge of new and emerging diseases, resources in the form of trained people, operational funds, and laboratory infrastructure must be provided. The emerging diseases initiative will address this challenge. Companion animals play an increasingly important role in the lives of humans by providing many social and psychological benefits but the increased interactions with animals can pose a risk for zoonotic diseases. It has been estimated that over 75% of pathogens in humans have their origin in animals.

Emerging infectious agents must be characterized and their interactions with the host and the environment defined. The mechanisms by which these agents alter their disease-causing capacity must be determined. In addition, research is needed to better define the mechanisms by which microbes change, mutate, or adapt to host species, or become resistant to existing antibiotics. Research efforts should also be directed towards new diagnostic tests to identify infected animals, and new vaccines to protect both animals and humans against clinical disease and prevent transmission of the disease to humans. The rapid identification and eventual control of new and reemerging diseases requires surveillance and monitoring of disease patterns in people and animals. Furthermore, future research should emphasize development of new antimicrobial agents, as well as the development of alternative strategies for treating and prevention of infectious diseases. Lastly, communication of information to people who are potentially affected can only be done by strengthening and expanding partnerships of veterinary medical personnel in public and private sectors with federal and state veterinary and human health professionals.

Environmental issues related to human and animal well-being. Animals and people share the same environment; therefore, what affects the safety of air and water for people, also affects the safety of air and water of our pets, livestock, and diverse wildlife species. Consequently, animals can be key indicators of environmental health hazards. In addition, animals form a major portion of the food supply for people, and their waste products can pose pollution hazards for air, water, and soil. This interdependence of all animal life, human and non-human alike, creates many common interests in environmental health and environmental medicine between veterinary medicine and human medicine.

Veterinarians are uniquely qualified to be key players in the field of environmental quality and public health. Veterinary medicine's broadly based training programs, which include toxicology and epidemiology, prepare veterinarians to contribute significantly to a wide variety of environment related health fields. In the area of environmental toxicology and epidemiology, veterinarians are on the forefront of environmental research, assessing the health hazards of environmental pollutants, identifying environmental carcinogens, discovering mechanisms of action of hazardous pollutants, and establishing cause and effect relationships. In the area of ecosystem health, veterinarians are engaged in interdisciplinary research on behalf of human and animal health in the natural and altered ecosystems of our cities, farms, and wild areas. This breadth of involvement enables them to be a valuable resource in control, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of environmentally associated diseases in people and animals, including those associated with contaminants.

Our society generates chemicals from industrial, agricultural, pharmaceutical, energy-related, household, and other sources, some of which accumulate in the environment. Many are overtly toxic to animals, plants, and people. Others produce subtle health effects including reduced fertility, growth, productivity, and resistance to infectious diseases. Equally important is the multitude of naturally occurring fungal and plant toxins that may be present in animal feeds. The potential for various chemical and microbial hazards in recycled wastes that affect domestic animals and people remains a constant concern. Veterinary medicine is often the first to be called upon when environmental disasters involving free-ranging wildlife, marine, or aquatic species occur. Veterinary diagnostic laboratories are called upon to identify the cause of deaths and evaluate the potential threat to animals as well as people.

Environmental toxicology and epidemiology investigations are needed to assess the health hazards of environmental pollutants and establish cause and effect relationships. Many diseases of domestic animals also threaten wildlife, such as canine distemper in endangered black-footed ferrets, brucellosis, and bovine tuberculosis. Infectious agents in free ranging wildlife such as Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorfei) and Ehrlichia species, for which deer may serve as the reservoir, are associated with diseases in domestic animals and humans. There is little or no data available to define the impact of many of these infectious agents or toxic products in free-ranging wildlife. Veterinary medical research is needed to address these and other issues of free-ranging livestock/wildlife, marine and aquatic species.

The agricultural industry faces enormous challenges going forward the next couple of decades, not the least of which will be providing food to a world with an exponentially increasing population and rapid development and industrialization of lower income countries. The world demand for, and consumption of, protein is expected to nearly double from 218 million tons annually in 1999 to 376 million tons annually in 2030 ( Meanwhile, the agricultural community is being increasingly subjected to scrutiny in terms of sustainability (social, economic, and environmental), the impact of animal housing and management practices on animals’ welfare, antimicrobial usage, and economies of scale.

It is important that changes of policy and practice are considered carefully before implementation and are based upon strong scientific evidence. The AVMA advocates for research to explore ways that promote increased production at decreased cost while protecting and/or enhancing animal welfare and minimizing environmental impacts. This may include, but is not limited to, research on the effect of subclinical illnesses on both feed and growth efficiency and food-borne illnesses; research to improve diagnostic capabilities to detect subclinical disease and improve disease containment; research on gene expression designed to improve efficient animal production and health; research to determine the impact of production practices on animal health, animal welfare and the environment; and quantitative risk assessments of the role of low-dose antimicrobial use in food-producing animals and human health.

Food security and food safety. Foods derived from animals are essential to the health and well-being of American citizens. While the U.S. produces the most abundant and safest food supply in the world, and food borne diseases are associated with only a very small fraction of the total food consumed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 48 million Americans acquire foodborne illness annually that are caused by 31 foodborne pathogens. The annual economic burden from foodborne illnesses has been estimated to be as high as $77.7 billion (J Food Prot. 2012 Jan; 75(1):123-31). Without effective intervention, these statistics will escalate in the future as the overall U.S. population increases concomitant with more people who are aged, are immunosuppressed, or have reduced resistance to disease for other reasons.

Food production systems have become more complex as our society has become more urbanized, with modifications in processing, distribution, retailing, preparation, and final handling by the consumer. Contamination of the food can occur at any step of this continuum, and research is needed to develop intervention strategies at each step. While veterinary medicine has historically been an important component of the post-harvest phase of food safety through the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service and Public Health responsibilities, it is also particularly well positioned to work with Producers to address the pre-harvest or production phase of food safety on farms. On-farm food safety programs need to be developed that will lead to production of high quality foods that enter the food chain free of microbial or chemical contaminants. Unfortunately, little is known about the conditions that foster the survival and distribution of many microbial contaminants. This knowledge will be essential for the reduction and possible elimination of these contaminants from our food animals and thereby from the U.S. food supply. Research must be done to develop effective and comprehensive monitoring and surveillance systems for the effective control of food borne diseases.

Of primary importance is the need for continued, and increased, health research for livestock, poultry, and aquaculture. Control of endemic diseases and the threat of transboundary animal diseases should be a top research priority, and include many of the aforementioned strategies including the development of new diagnostic assays for earlier recognition of pathogens, as well as the development of new vaccine strategies to control the transmission of pathogens from animal to other animals and/or people. Similarly, efficient food production, as well as the welfare of individual animals, is optimized by good animal health. Management practices to promote animal health should be investigated, with a special emphasis on the effect of nutrition on prevention of disease, correction of physiological imbalances, and efficient energy utilization. Research into other management practices, including sanitation and hygiene conditions, may lead to a reduction in exposure of humans to animal pathogens.

Enhanced animal welfare and the human-animal bond. The health and welfare of animals under human care is an important and increasing societal concern. Veterinarians play an essential role in determining standards of care and protecting the well-being of animals used as companions, for production of food and fiber, in biomedical research, for work (including security, military, and assistance animals), in exhibition and entertainment, and kept in shelters and sanctuaries. The support of research that advances the development of objective and evidence-based criteria for the assessment of animal welfare for all species is an important objective of the AVMA.

Food and fiber animals would benefit greatly from research on new or improved housing techniques and humane slaughter, and the development of objective metrics for evaluating animal welfare. The vast majority of livestock and poultry producers have acted responsibly in attempting to ensure the well-being of their animals. A coordinated effort involving veterinarians, food animal producers and their industries, the scientific community, governmental agencies, and consumers of animal products is needed to successfully resolve public concerns related to the welfare and humane care and use of farm animal species. Establishing guidelines for the care of animals in production environments is especially challenging because economic feasibility is essential to survival of the production unit. Our scientific knowledge about the welfare of food animals and the impacts of various production practices on it must be strengthened. Veterinary researchers, in association with animal scientists, are well positioned to contribute to studies designed to provide the quantitative data needed to comprehensively assess recommendations for changes in production management systems.

Companion animals are in 65% of U.S. households and comprise an animal population of more than 78 million dogs and 86 million cats. Additionally, pet birds and ornamental fish are rapidly growing in numbers. Improved understanding of the human-animal bond indicates that companion animals contribute significantly to the quality of human life. As our society evolves, ethical and social issues relating to maintaining or improving the quality of human and animal life are brought to the forefront. Continued research is needed to gain further insight into human-animal relationships, including not only positive interactions but also negative ones, such as the motivations behind animal cruelty and animal hoarding. Research is also needed to develop better methods of reducing or eliminating pain associated with medical and surgical procedures; to develop non-surgical methods of sterilization to assist in animal population management; and to identify improved strategies for assessing and managing freely roaming and neglected animals, with a goal of reducing their numbers, improving their welfare, and reducing negative impacts on native wildlife populations and the potential spread of zoonotic diseases.

Lastly, as regards the use of animals in biomedical research, the AVMA supports the 3Rs (reduction, replacement, refinement) as proposed by Russell and Burch in 1959. Investigators should continue to strive to develop non-animal alternatives, and to improve the housing and management of animals used as research models.

Basic and translational research on human and animal disease. Veterinarians participate fully in biomedical research as principal investigators, collaborators with unique insights into comparative medicine, experts in the assessment of clinical outcomes in animals, and as animal welfare experts and advocates for their humane care. Moreover, spontaneously occurring and experimentally induced animal models of human and animal disease are essential to the advancement of medical knowledge. Veterinarians bring unique insights in comparative medicine to such research efforts, and such comparative training is an essential component of veterinary education. Veterinarians, as comparative medical scientists, are important leaders and members of interdisciplinary medical research teams using animal models to study human diseases because of their training as integrative biologists with a broad understanding of basic physiology and pathology as well as whole animal biology.

Biomedical research relies heavily on animal models of disease. The vast majority of animal based research is conducted using mice, rats, and aquatic species although other species are also used when they provide a better model of the disease being studied.  Animal models can occur spontaneously or can be produced by a variety of experimental techniques including dietary manipulation, genetic modification, and surgical modification. Animals with naturally occurring disease provide a unique opportunity to advance the understanding and care of similarly affected animals as well as humans with similar diseases.

The AVMA supports and encourages biomedical comparative research and applying knowledge gained from comparative biomedical research to better understand the mechanisms of disease and to enhance the development of new diagnostic tools, therapies and preventive strategies for diseases in humans and animals.

Training veterinarians for the research workforce. Education of veterinary students remains a top priority for the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) and is equally shared by the AVMA. The future success and competitiveness of our food and agricultural, animal, and human health sciences will be further developed and achieved by providing highly qualified people. To provide national and global leadership, veterinary medicine must recruit and develop bright young minds to the highest level appropriate. These students must then be challenged by accomplished faculty members at institutions with modern facilities and equipment. The recruitment of biomedical scientists continues to be one of the most challenging issues facing society and the research community. Recruitment and training of additional veterinary medical scientists are critical to meet present and predicted needs. By virtue of their training, veterinarians are uniquely qualified to engage in in vivo studies. By receiving research training, the veterinary profession will be better equipped to form partnerships with other health professions to solve environmental, food safety, trade, and re-emerging/new emerging disease issues that may arise and affect our society.