Basic ethics and veterinary medicine


Basic ethics and veterinary medicine

Skills new practitioners need to establish future success

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.

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Memorize the Oath, because upon graduation, new veterinarians routinely recite this solemn pledge, originally adopted in 1959 by the American Veterinary Medical Association, amended in 1999 and re-affirmed in 2004.

One major direction and premise of the Oath is to "practice my profession ... in keeping with the principles of veterinary medical ethics." Fully understanding what this implies requires an examination of several definitions of ethics.

Webster's International Dictionary defines ethics as a group of moral principles or a set of values. It's the discipline of dealing with what is right and wrong or associated with moral duty and obligation. It's also the principles of conduct governing an individual or a profession.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer, a noted theologian, philosopher, musician, physician and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, wrote the following: "Ethics is the name that we give to our concern for good behavior.

We feel an obligation to consider not only our own personal well-being, but also that of others and of human society as a whole."

To further understand the meaning of ethics in veterinary medicine, we must consider animal ethics versus veterinary ethics.

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Jerrold Tannenbaum's book "Veterinary Ethics-Animal Welfare, Client Relations, Competition and Collegiality" defines animal ethics as the moral obligations that people have for animals, while veterinary ethics relate to veterinarians and others directly involved in the provision of veterinary care.

Four branches of ethics

Tannenbaum further defines veterinary ethics as having four branches and describes them as follows:

1. Descriptive: values or standards of the profession outlining what is acceptable behavior determined by peers. The Veterinarian's Oath is an example.

2. Official: values formally adopted by organizations composed of members of that profession. The AVMA Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics is an example.

3. Administrative: rules set by governmental bodies that regulate veterinary medicine. Licensure requirements or Drug Enforcement Agency registration protocols define this category.

4. Normative: the individual's attempt to discover what he or she believes to be the correct moral standard and norms for professional behavior and attitude.

A practitioner's stance on convenience euthanasia is an example.

Ethics or the law

There often is a fine line between ethical and legal violations. A breach of descriptive or official ethical values would not be enforced by a court of law but might be cause for dismissal from the association.

Such a violation would rarely cause a practitioner to lose his or her license to practice veterinary medicine.

Yet violations of administrative rules and regulations determined by governmental bodies would be enforced by the regulatory agency overseeing licensure as well as the courts system. A violation could result in a loss of licensure, jail time and fines.


There are many instances facing our society and personal lives where a situation might be considered unethical but legal and vice versa.

Perhaps the most common conflicts facing new graduates are between his or her normative ethics and the applied standards of the society in which veterinarians find themselves.

For example, AVMA's protocol on ethics states, "Humane euthanasia of animals is an ethical veterinary procedure." The group's animal welfare position, also an example of official ethics, includes the statement, "The AVMA is not opposed to the euthanasia of unwanted animals, when appropriate, by properly trained personnel, using acceptable humane methods."