Veterinary ethics in review

Balancing duty to society and animals
Published on April 15, 2006
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

With animal rights and welfare groups continually challenging traditional attitudes about animals, veterinarians are finding themselves having to explain their responsibilities under the Veterinarian's Oath.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science convened a symposium on veterinary ethical challenges during its annual meeting this February in St. Louis. Representatives from a number of animal-related fields gathered to offer their views on whom do the veterinarians serve: the public, the client, the patient, or a combination of all three?

Much of Andrew Rowan's talk focused on the "cool" relationship he said has existed between the AVMA and animal welfare community for the past several decades. "I think it's fair to say there's been a problem of trust," said Rowan, PhD, executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States.

Dr. Rowan challenged the notion that veterinarians are the only reliable experts on animal welfare, noting how many leading welfare advocates are not veterinarians themselves. "There is a difference between animal health and animal welfare," he said. "Animal welfare is not simply an absence of disease."

According to Dr. John Albers, executive director of the American Animal Hospital Association, companion animal practitioners have a contractual obligation to pet owners and the added duty of being an advocate for pets. Veterinarians' concern should be for animals' welfare, not their rights, he added.

Dr. Albers identified convenience euthanasia, cosmetic ear cropping and tail docking, and cat declawing as current ethical dilemmas in companion animal medicine. Encompassing these is the larger debate about whether animals should be granted many of the same rights enjoyed by people. Were that to happen, Dr. Albers said, veterinarians, society, and animals would all suffer.

"If pets had rights, could they be neutered?" Dr. Albers asked. "Would it be OK to put your dog on a leash? Could pets be bought, sold, or exchanged? What about a pet clearly suffering from a terminal disease? Should it be euthanized?"

Pets do have certain rights, Dr. Albers observed: a right to food, shelter, veterinary care, love, and respect. Veterinarians support those rights by insisting on responsible pet ownership.

Food animal veterinarians operate at two levels in terms of fulfilling their oath, according Dr. David B. Morton of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Birmingham, England.

First, veterinarians have a responsibility to the animal, to be its advocate when advising the owner on the best care for its health and welfare. This responsibility includes preventing the health or welfare problem from affecting the herd or flock.

Veterinarians are called on also to help determine public policy, Dr. Morton explained. This includes offering advice on the acceptability of husbandry systems. Advice may also involve disease prevention and control strategies and, just as important, safeguarding public health in the case of zoonoses.

Dr. R. Eric Miller spoke about how the nation's zoos aid in species conservation. Many zoos are working around the world to save endangered species and their habitats. "Conservation is the number one priority of zoos," said Dr. Miller, director of the St. Louis Zoo Wildlife Care Institute.

Captive breeding programs, such as Species Survival Programs, are another way zoos try to ensure that threatened and endangered species survive. Zoos also educate the public and give them an opportunity to see animals they most likely would never see in the wild.

Zoo staff members see to the animals' health and well-being by providing food, water, shelter, and veterinary care, as well as environmental enrichment. "Zoos are animal welfare organizations," Dr. Miller stated.