Thursday, August 26, 2010

A day in the life: ethics from large and small animal vets

I had trouble choosing just one anecdote to relay from today’s lectures, so I’m going with two, and calling this “a day in the life” (of a third year vet student) rather than “veterinary fact of the day.”

Our large animal medicine and surgery lectures this morning were on oral and GI diseases in cows. Dr. Big (not his real name) started the GI lecture with an overview of the situation in which today’s dairy cow finds herself. He pointed out that ruminants made an interesting gamble a long time ago, relying on bacteria in their huge stomachs to convert their food into energy. Then man started selectively breeding them, and today’s dairy cow looks very different than she did even fifty years ago. A cow today might produce 150 lbs of milk a day during her peak lactation. “I bet half of you don’t even weigh that much,” he said. He went on to opine that almost every disease which we will be learning about during our five hours of GI lecture (not all of that was today!) is man made. “Put the cow on a pasture and she’ll live for 20 years with no problems. Put her in a dairy herd and ask for 150 lbs/day, and her mean life expectancy is 5 years.” (I found it interesting that he equated being on pasture with not producing milk. Every week at my local farmer’s market, I purchase yogurt made from milk from grass-fed dairy cows, out on pasture right here in Massachusetts.) He went on to suggest that we should all read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which he felt was a very interesting book, “though I don’t think Pollan got it entirely right.”

I just get little hearts in my eyes when food animal vets talk like this. Cows should be on pasture! They get sick because of things we do! It is lovely to see people walking in the grey area between ignoring all welfare implications (“cows do just fine in open barns, they don’t need to be out on grass”) and ignoring the realities of the situation (“no one should ever drink milk because cows shouldn’t be raised the way they are”). Dr. Big thinks we can do better than we do, and he tries to make it happen, by teaching vet students and (I presume) by encouraging farmers to make changes where they can. Compare that to the lecture from the swine practitioner earlier this week, who felt that intensive farming of pigs was best for the pigs’ welfare.

From the other side of the fence, in anesthesia lecture we got a moment to think about the welfare of dogs. Dr. Bonne talked about managing brachycephalic (flat-faced) dogs when they recover from anesthesia. When a dog is under general anesthesia, it has an endotracheal tube (“trach tube”) put down its throat to help it breathe. Most dogs need to have the trach tube removed before they are fully awake. Not brachycephalics. Dr. Bonne showed us a photo of a bulldog: “Look, there he is, wide awake with the tube in, breathing wonderfully. They will do that for an hour or so.” Brachycephalics often have tracheas the width of a tomcat’s, just 5.5 mm in diameter. It is not really enough for them to breathe. When they wake up with a trach tube in, it may be the first time in their lives in which they can breathe easily. Dr. Bonne expounded: “Can you imagine, they must spend so much energy every day, just to breathe. They are perfectly happy with the trach tube in. You should leave it in until the last minute, until they are almost ready to walk out the door. Nobody else tolerates the tube the way that these dogs do.” To my mind, she didn’t go quite far enough — she didn’t ever suggest that perhaps brachycephalics should be bred with a little more care to whether or not they can breathe. But I still appreciated the rant, as far as it went.

What I did today: Two hours of small animal medicine and surgery lecture. Two hours of large animal medicine and surgery lecture. Lunch! (A meeting.) Two hours of anesthesia lecture. Home!

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