Animal Welfare

Dear Colleagues,

Animal welfare is not a new concept for veterinarians. But at the AVMA, it has a new emphasis. Over the years, we have become progressively more active in the animal welfare arena, and today a proactive, responsible approach to animal welfare is one of the AVMA’s highest priorities. Our Executive Board affirmed this position last summer when it approved five strategic goals that guide our decision-making and the use of our resources.

Animal welfare is arguably the hottest topic these days when it comes to animal-related issues, and it has never been more important for veterinarians to get involved and to speak with an authoritative voice.

There certainly are many voices already being heard in the animal welfare debate. Unfortunately, the veterinarian’s voice isn’t always one of them. For years, we have all said veterinarians are the experts on animal welfare, but we really haven’t taken the initiative to demonstrate it, other than to say we are the experts. We aren’t getting out there as often as we should, bringing our expertise to the discussion.

We have made significant progress in many aspects of animal welfare over the years, from production animals to companion animals to laboratory animals and zoo animals. Great strides have been made in improving animal health, reducing injury and maximizing production. But too little attention has been placed on less traditional veterinary measures of animal welfare, especially animal cognition and behavior. What is needed, then, is more effort in sharing information on the progress we have made, and an extra effort to expand our definition of animal welfare.

All too often, the public is looking to other stakeholders – the media, animal rights groups, the industries and lawmakers – not veterinarians, to help them frame the animal welfare debate.

We can’t remain on the fringe of this debate any longer. Society is demanding more of us. Consumer attitudes, right along with client expectations, are changing. We need to change, too. We must position ourselves as the leading authorities on, and stewards of, animal welfare.

The challenges are many. A recent sampling of headlines in our very own Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association turns up myriad stories on animal welfare-related issues that are generating significant public interest: Meat from downer cattle entering our food supply. Poultry and sow housing. Unwanted horses going to slaughter in Mexico and Canada.

These are all issues with which most of us are familiar. If we aren’t directly involved, we certainly have seen the headlines, read the stories and listened to the debate. But what are we, as a profession, doing to ensure that the information provided to the public and other stakeholders is based on science, sound judgment, fact and ethics? These same stakeholders are becoming increasingly sympathetic toward the extremes in the debate because those are the only voices they hear. Are we ready to deal with the consequences of allowing a select few voices to influence decision makers from board rooms to Capitol Hill?

One of the AVMA’s strategic goals focuses on animal welfare, and Dr. DeHaven and I are committed to seeing that the AVMA fulfills its responsibility to be a “leading advocate for, and an authoritative, science-based resource” when it comes to animal welfare issues.

In line with this goal are four new animal welfare policies, just approved by the Executive Board, that deal with humane transport of equines, castration and dehorning of cattle, the use of guides and tethers when training and managing elephants, and steel-jawed leghold traps. All are representative of our responsibilities and our scientific knowledge when it comes to managing animals with their welfare in mind.

More animal welfare information is available in AVMA backgrounders, which provide valuable insight into welfare issues and the science behind the debate.

Here’s a look at some of the other efforts we have undertaken in what, we hope, is an evolution – based on science – toward a greater understanding of animal welfare issues and more acceptable animal care practices.

The American Association of Bovine Practitioners recently published in its newsletter a guest column written by Dr. DeHaven that dealt with animal welfare issues and how we, as veterinarians, need to be at the forefront of the discussion. It’s safe to say that it opened many eyes – even raised a few eyebrows – and generated much discussion. That’s the first step – to get people talking.

We also want to get people thinking, and there is no better place to start than with our veterinary students.

The AVMA is reaching out to these future stakeholders about the complexity of animal welfare and how they can get involved in shaping animal welfare science. We recently published a new brochure, “Animal Welfare: Seeing the forest AND the trees,” that is now available on our Web site. The brochure defines animal welfare, provides the AVMA Animal Welfare Principles, addresses conundrums in caring for animals used for human purposes, and, perhaps most importantly, encourages veterinary students to seek additional information about animal welfare from sources such as the AVMA, to serve on AVMA entities to help shape policy and actions relevant to animal welfare, and to participate in learning experiences like the veterinary division of the Intercollegiate Animal Welfare Judging and Assessment Competition, which is sponsored by the AVMA and hosted by Michigan State University.

We recommend the brochure as “required reading” for all veterinarians. Because, as the brochure states, “Veterinarians provide the foundation for animal welfare by conducting animal welfare research; preserving the health of animals; providing guidance on housing, nutrition, humane handling and management; and, when necessary, providing humane euthanasia.”

Now that we’ve got people talking and thinking, we also need to get them listening. Dr. Gail Golab, director of the AVMA Animal Welfare Division, recently brought the AVMA’s animal welfare message to Capitol Hill when she testified, along with renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, before a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources on the risks associated with keeping nonhuman primates as pets.

The subcommittee sought testimony on the Captive Primate Safety Act, which would limit commerce in chimpanzees, monkeys and other nonhuman primates kept as pets. Citing concerns about their physical and mental welfare, the risks of zoonotic disease and injury, and potential ecological damage, Dr. Golab argued, using AVMA policy as her base and science as her guide, that keeping nonhuman primates as pets can present hazards for their owners, other animals, the public and the nonhuman primate’s own well-being. This was the second time in less than a year that Dr. Golab has appeared as an expert before Congress. Her previous testimony focused on the welfare of farm animals.

From pets to production animals to laboratory animals to wildlife, animal welfare issues are diverse and complex. We each bring our own perspective and our own opinion to the table. Dr. DeHaven and I strongly urge you to join the discussion. The responsibility lies with us to absorb as much information as possible before we forge a position on animal welfare issues. That may mean stepping out of our comfort zone to do the right thing for animals. But they are steps we must take in order for the AVMA and its member veterinarians to assume our rightful place as leaders in the animal welfare arena.


Hammer signature DeHaven signature
Gregory S. Hammer, DVM
W. Ron DeHaven, DVM, MBA
Executive Vice President

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