Thursday, August 12, 2010

Animal welfare and veterinary ethics

The American College of Animal Welfare has proposed a new animal welfare veterinary speciality. The creation of a new specialty happens when a new veterinary college is created. Admission to a veterinary college normally entails completion of veterinary school (obviously), then a few years in private practice or a one-year internship, then a multi-year residency in the specialty, including clinical practice and research, and finally a difficult board exam. There may be some other requirements for specific specialties. In this case, a proposed additional requirement is that the candidate sign a statement that they agree with the AVMA’s animal welfare principles.

Some veterinarians recently sent a letter to the AVMA protesting this requirement. This story has been reported on both by the Veterinary Information Network News Service (an unbiased report) and by Pet Connection (an opinon piece).

One item in the AVMA’s animal welfare principles that the veterinarians who sent the letter are taking exception to is:

The responsible use of animals for human purposes, such as companionship, food, fiber, recreation, work, education, exhibition, and research conducted for the benefit of both humans and animals, is consistent with the Veterinarian’s Oath.

Should veterinarians be required to agree with the AVMA’s animal welfare principles before they are allowed to be certified as animal welfare specialists?

It is worth pointing out that the AVMA already requires all veterinarians to take an oath upon completion of veterinary school. Here it is:

Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health, the relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.

I will practice my profession conscientiously, with dignity, and in keeping with the principles of veterinary medical ethics.

I accept as a lifelong obligation the continual improvement of my professional knowledge and competence.
This oath may seem innocuous, but note that it frames a veterinarian’s primary responsibility as being “for the benefit of society,” not for the benefit of animals. This is very similar to what I see as the primary objection to the animal welfare principles being debated, which emphasize “the responsible use of animals for human purposes.” If you disagree with the latter, should you have sworn to the former? Or is it possible that a number of veterinarians are taking the Veterinarian’s Oath without really meaning it?

Personally, I actually prefer the phrasing in the animal welfare principles, which only require “the responsible use of animals for human purposes.” What is responsible use? It is presumably different for different people. In the VIN article, Dr. Gary Block (moderator of a veterinary ethics mailing list, past president of the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics, member of the leadership council of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, board certified internal medicine specialist) explains his view point:

For the most part, everyone would agree with the principles. But let’s say that I come to the conclusion that based on ethical, medical, physiologic and environmental grounds that invasive research on higher primates should never be done. Now I’ve just run afoul of the principles.

I have a lot of respect for Dr. Block and his positions on animal welfare, but in this case I think he’s wrong. I think it’s fine to interpret “responsible use” to mean “no use” in some cases. There are some things that cannot be done responsibly; genocide comes to mind. If Dr. Block chooses to believe that primate research cannot be done responsibly due to primates’ high requirements for enrichment, I don’t find that position to be irreconcilable with the AVMA’s animal welfare principles.

My view is that the AVMA has dragged its heels for too long when it comes to its views of animal welfare. The AVMA’s positions on animal welfare seem to me to all too often fail to reflect the views of the majority of American veterinarians. Creation of an animal welfare college would be a big step forward. If we stop to quibble about the details, it may never happen. These principles are broad and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. It’s annoying to have to sign them, no question. But worth jeopardizing the creation of the new specialty? In my opinion, no.

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