AAAS symposium—Veterinarians and animal welfare: What role should the profession play?

AAAS symposium—Veterinarians and animal welfare: What role should the profession play?

Held in high esteem, veterinarians are widely perceived as experts in animal health—and deservedly so. But is the profession doing everything it can to ensure the well-being of all animals?
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Aug 01, 2006

The public views veterinarians favorably, regarding them as experts in animal care and welfare. But the veterinary profession has had a love-hate relationship with animal advocates.

Moreover, as people have come to value their pets more highly, many veterinarians have responded by offering—and charging for—medical and surgical services that meet their clients' expanding demands for advanced healthcare. But despite this link between concern for animals and increased demand for veterinary services, as of the early 1990s only six of 28 veterinary schools in North America identified animal welfare as an important issue in their strategic plans developed under the Pew Veterinary Education Initiative. Since the Pew initiative, 15 schools have opened centers that focus on human-animal and animal welfare issues. But unfortunately, these centers rely on a few small grants and the enthusiasm of one or two faculty members.

As public concern for animal welfare grew, people began asking awkward questions regarding, for example, the production of foie gras, the forced molting of laying hens, and the slaughter of horses for human consumption overseas. In response to this growing interest in animal welfare, in 2005 the American Veterinary Medical Association created its Animal Welfare Division. It is too soon to determine what this division will accomplish, but if it does no more than identify new resources for the study and implementation of animal welfare policies and provide a forum for the serious discussion of animal welfare issues, it will have a positive impact.

The profession's economics and changing demographics—in 1960, less than 2% of veterinarians were female; today 45% are female—will have an impact on the way the profession deals with animal welfare and animal rights. Public opinion polls find that women are about 15 percentage points more positive toward animal welfare issues than are men. One could argue that the increased of numbers of female veterinarians is already having an impact, even though there are still relatively few women in leadership positions in the profession. In addition, most pet caregivers who take their animals to veterinarians will favor those veterinarians who emphasize animal welfare.

Because their animals are now considered members of the household, people are requesting advanced veterinary services—and paying more for them. The more veterinary hospitals respond to this change in pet caregiver attitudes by, for example, focusing more on animal welfare and working cooperatively with local humane societies, the more their clients are likely to trust them and accept the new economic realities of pet medicine.

Andrew N. Rowan, PhD
Executive Vice President
Humane Society of the United States
2100 L St., NW
Washington, D.C. 20037