The new welfare war

The new welfare war

Veterinarians in the forefront of debate—but they are far from alone
Sep 01, 2009

Americans today are wrestling with the value of their pets and the laws protecting animals more than ever before. And experts say veterinarians are — and should be — at the center of the debate.

Californians recently passed Proposition 2, requiring farmers to house animals in ways that allow them to lie down, stand up, extend limbs and turn around freely. Proposition 2 was just one of many measures working their way through state legislatures, including bans on declawing cats and devocalizing dogs.

Equine veterinarians have been pulled into the fray over the divisive issue of horse slaughter. As the economy tumbles, horse-rescue groups have been unable to keep up with the demand of housing abandoned horses. Many wonder whether an earlier ban on slaughtering unwanted horses for meat for export isn't less cruel than abandonment or starvation.

In the law-enforcement world, animal-welfare issues continue to gain ground. In July authorities organized the largest bust of alleged dog-fighting operations in the nation's history, spanning eight states and taking in roughly 500 dogs. Dr. Melinda Merck, senior director of veterinary forensics for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), assisted authorities.

And the question of greater damage in court for lost or killed pets is percolating at a slow boil.

In a case closely watched by animal- law experts — like Dr. Kent McClure, JD, general counsel for the animal-industry group Animal Health Institute (AHI) — an appeals court in California ruled against a plaintiff seeking emotional damages for the loss of a dog to veterinary malpractice.

But animal welfare isn't easy to figure out, even for experts. The best use and treatment of animals is a balancing act, involving both measurable medical factors, like rates of injury and disease and animal behavior, and societal ethics, according to Dr. Gail Golab, head of the American Veterinary Medical Association's (AVMA) Animal Welfare Division.

The big picture

Golab's division helps the AVMA make science-based decisions about animal welfare that are grounded in data. How does a new drug, a new training technique or a new type of housing affect stress levels, incidence of disease and other measurable factors? But there's always society to consider. "Veterinary medicine is a service industry, and we serve society," she says. "The public also determines what it is or is not comfortable with in the care of animals."

The reality is, while veterinarians are at the forefront of animal-welfare issues, they are not — and should not be — alone. That interdisciplinary reality of animal welfare, involving animal scientists, ethicists, economists and sociologists, has sometimes been challenging for veterinarians. "We're scientists, and we like things that can be reduced to data," Golab says. "Animal welfare isn't one of those things."

Veterinarians are a part of the future of animal welfare, but what will that future look like?

Doctors and the law

Right now, veterinarians benefit from the fact that pet owners spend far more on veterinary care than their animals are worth as property. That's a fundamental paradox at the heart of small-animal veterinary practice today, according to Dr. James F. Wilson, JD, a veterinary consultant and author of the book Law and Ethics of the Veterinary Profession. Wilson has watched the status of pets' value to families grow through the years, and he says veterinarians are taking advantage of flying under the legal radar. So far.

It's Wilson's opinion that veterinarians and veterinary associations must be at the forefront of efforts to expand economic damages for loss of pets beyond mere market or replacement value.

"We all know we're relying on that human-animal bond for the success of our practices," he says. "And we have to recognize that that success results in costs for veterinary care that frequently are well above the value of the pet as property."