Earlier this month the British Veterinary Association published their animal welfare strategy: “Vets speaking up for animal welfare.” The strategy focusses on the primacy of animal welfare amongst the many concerns of veterinary surgeons. From the start they draw on the wording of the RCVS declaration made by all vets: “ABOVE ALL, my constant endeavour will be to ensure the health and welfare of animals committed to my care.”
That vets care for animal welfare might seem obvious. However, the BVA describe the purpose of their document as providing consistent terms of engagement for vets considering issues of animal welfare, science, ethics and law (AWSEL). They begin by describing how the last fifty years has seen a revolution in our scientific understanding of how animals think and feel. As a result, society has re-evaluated many issues of animal welfare and vets must play a role in turning these new values into policy and practice. They also describe leadership on welfare issues, which vets are expertly placed to provide, as a key component of the future of the veterinary profession. And failure to take up this role is described as a risk to the integrity of the profession.
Rather than delving into specific welfare problems, the strategy lays out six key areas for consideration which elucidate the goals and consider how to have the best impact when vets look at these individual cases. These are:
Animal Welfare Assessment
Here the BVA discuss the need for consistent welfare assessment tools. These must be available to all vets and be regularly updated with scientific developments. The importance of looking beyond clinical signs and physical health to animals’ behaviours and positive feelings is highlighted.
Vets encounter a trilemma between the interests of the patient, the client and themselves or their business with every case they take. Furthermore, with modern techniques the delicate balance between what could be done and what should be done also comes into question. Here the authors discuss the need to train vets in ethical decision making so that they can confidently and competently make this type of choice.
Once again, improving support and training for vets features in this section, here around how to respond to suspected welfare problems, educate the public and enforce the law.
The advocacy section discusses how vets can promote good welfare at both practice and policy levels. It is here that the risk of not being seen as active campaigners for animal welfare is highlighted as a danger to the veterinary profession. An interesting comparison is made between vets and paediatricians, highlighting how the welfare of the patient comes foremost before the parents’ preference or the doctor’s business or career development.
Due to the wealth of problems currently facing AWSEL, the authors talk about a programme of change using three key questions to evaluate specific welfare problems:
- What does the veterinary profession think about this?
- What is the veterinary profession doing about this?
- Who are we working with to address this?
This part of the strategy also focussed on education in schools, working across organisations and highlighting success stories to the media.
Education of the public is covered off under “Advocacy”, so this section deals with educating professionals. The focus is split between exploring how AWSEL is delivered to undergraduates and how continuing professional development (CPD) must be used to support practicing medics.
Here the part animal welfare and the veterinary profession play in a number of global areas including food security, One Health, antibiotic resistance and sustainable development is discussed. Animal welfare is described as an indicator of social development which is an interesting point I had not heard before. The impact of a growing human population on the planet, especially via agriculture where vets play a role, is touched upon and a global role for vets as stewards is suggested. A main focus is how responsible sourcing can be built into food quality standards and assurance. Again, cross-organisational working is discussed looking at how many organisations have now evaluated the role of the vet in animal welfare and subsequently highlighted AWSEL as a veterinary priority.
Although it’s true of all the sections, with the International discussion I really got the impression it could have been formed up into a whole paper in its own right.
The overall Animal Welfare Strategy was written in consultation with over forty stakeholders from animal organisations including businesses, academic groups, veterinary associations, government agencies and NGOs. It sets high expectations for how the veterinary profession needs to move forwards, changing from reactively dealing with welfare issues to co-ordinating training and responses. Certainly it’s given me lots to think about and highlighted many areas for further reading, such as the idea of a Universal Declaration of Animal Welfare, the inclusion of animals’ perceptions in the Lisbon Treaty (part of the constitutional basis of the EU) and the history of veterinary involvement in animal welfare. I hope going forwards many of the actions are successfully fulfilled and we can see vets having even more impact on improving animal welfare.