Veterinary profession, animal welfare ethics evolve together

The question is: Should veterinarians press for change or follow?
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The question of treating animals humanely isn't simply a theoretical exercise for Dr. Gary J. Patronek.

The former Tufts University professor and now vice president for animal welfare at the Animal Rescue League of Boston says he is challenged daily by the realities of living out a practical animal welfare ethic.

Shelter cat
Animal shelters illustrate the difficulties of living a practical animal welfare ethic.

Boston's shelter community is a unique window into society, Dr. Patronek told symposium attendees, and it's one that allows him an opportunity to gauge public attitudes on man's obligations to animals.

Dr. Patronek, who thinks of animal protection as a "gray area ... guided more by values than science," noted that animal welfare norms are dynamic and always advancing in a direction that affords greater consideration for animal interests.

For instance, Animal Rescue League of Boston founder Anna Harris Smith and like-minded women of the late 1800s were derided as suffering from zoophilic psychosis by prominent medical professionals, according to Dr. Patronek. Today, however, it isn't unusual for pets to be doted on like children and animal abusers counted among society's chief villains.

Can we maintain our commitment to welfare without taking some leaps?


"Over 100 years later, zoophilic psychosis is in the scientific trash heap," he said. "Animal welfare has proven its staying power."

The veterinary profession's thinking on animal welfare is not immune to change. Consider pain management. Until relatively recently, pain in animal patients was largely ignored and not treated as aggressively as it is now.

Dr. Patronek cautioned against underestimating the lengths to which people will go to protect animals. He referred to the case of a horse at a Wyoming sanctuary whose leg was so badly infected as to require amputation. Traditional thinking would dictate that the animal be euthanized, but the horse was instead fitted with an artificial leg and its life prolonged.

Extraordinary efforts to save an animal may seem unusual now, but Dr. Patronek believes the Wyoming horse is evidence of a larger shift in the social ethic toward animals. "I would not dismiss what this means for the level of care veterinarians may expect clients to approve for their pets, and the lengths the public may expect those working on behalf of animal welfare to go to in their professional capacity," he said.

Euthanasia—long accepted as a humane way of ending a shelter animal's life when no home was available—is being challenged and is coming to be seen by some as an unjustifiable outcome rather than an unavoidable but dignified end.

"Some say death is not euthanasia if the animal is not terminally suffering or untreatable, and euthanasia for population control is now referred to in some quarters as 'killing,'" Dr. Patronek explained.

Veterinary schools and colleges are also experiencing an evolution in animal welfare ethics. The practice of multiple survival surgery is a thing of the past, Dr. Patronek noted, and several universities, including Ross and Tufts, have discontinued single terminal procedures in healthy animals. He encouraged veterinary leaders to embrace these developments and end terminal surgeries in veterinary education.

Animal welfare, according to Dr. Patronek, is a challenging business and not for the fainthearted. He wonders whether the shortage of food supply veterinarians is more a result of ethical qualms with intensified animal agriculture production than a lack of exposure to food animal medicine. Regardless of their vocational track, Dr. Patronek questions whether students are adequately prepared for the complex and emotionally draining issues awaiting them after graduation.

"Sometimes I wonder if we paint students too rosy a picture of becoming involved in animal welfare," he said, and added, "How do we prepare students to be continually challenged to do more, to care more, to be superheroes?"

Survey after survey shows the public holds veterinarians in high regard, but, Dr. Patronek asked, do they expect veterinarians to "leap rather than hop" with respect to advancing animal welfare? "As a profession, our track record suggests we are not leapers," he said. "Can we maintain our commitment to welfare without taking some leaps?"

Dr. Patronek takes heart in the transformative power veterinarians can exercise, and it's nowhere more evident than in animal shelter medicine, where the improvement in animal lives seen today once seemed out of reach. A handful of veterinarians met the challenge head-on, he recounted, and they have helped make the climate for change possible. Today, the Association of Shelter Veterinarians numbers over 700.

"A new generation of veterinarians is engaged with us in enthusiastically exploring the territory of the possible, despite the, at times, discouraging reminders that we are not yet where we want to be," Dr. Patronek said.