Why small animal veterinarians should care about farm animals

Concern for animals slaughtered in the U.S. should be part of the veterinarian's oath.
May 01, 2013

Growing up in suburban Long Island, New York, I had no knowledge or understanding of how animals on farms were cared for or where my food came from. I first became aware of how food animals were treated in the book Animal Liberation by Peter Singer,1 which I read long after graduation from veterinary school.

In the United States, we raise and kill approximately 9 billion animals per year on farms far removed from the clean offices where we practice as small animal veterinarians. Singer and others2 have described how over the past 60 years animal agriculture has shifted from a culture of husbandry, in which the farmer was a steward of his or her small herd living on pasture and felt a responsibility to ensure the animals' welfare, to its present state of industrialization, in which animals are bred to be increasingly large, processed in higher numbers and confined in smaller spaces. We have moved from an era in which farmers were the animal's caretaker to one in which we have sacrificed virtually any commitment to farm animal well-being.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), approximately 77 percent of veterinarians in 2012 practiced exclusively or part-time on small animals.3 Many of these small animal veterinarians have adopted dogs or cats that others relinquished and are helping to improve the lives of their future patients by volunteering at spay-neuter clinics and contributing time and discounts to local rescues and other humane organizations. Yet our actions don't seem to extend to animals we don't see or interact with—animals that desperately need our assistance.

The case for farm animals

According to the AVMA, there are approximately 70 million pet dogs and 74 million pet cats in the United States.4 Comparatively, the number of animals slaughtered in the United States in 2011 was more than 9 billion, as follows:

> 8.7 billion chickens

> 246 million turkeys

> 110 million pigs.5

For those less inclined to follow decimal points, consider this: The number of turkeys slaughtered in one year far surpasses the number of pet dogs and cats combined, and the number of farm animals killed in one year is more than 60 times the number of pet dogs and cats combined. If for no other reason than the sheer magnitude of these numbers, the plight of farm animals warrants our concern. Here are a few considerations:

Housing and confinement of pigs. More than three-quarters of breeding pigs (approximately 6 million) are confined in gestation crates—metal cages approximately 2 feet wide by 7 feet long. Sows are unable to turn around in this cramped space and live in these crates for four months without respite. A few weeks after nursing is completed, she is impregnated and transferred back to the gestation crate. A breeding pig thus spends nearly every moment of her life confined to a degree of virtual immobilization.6

Housing and confinement of chickens. In the United States, approximately 95 percent of egg-producing chickens (estimated at 280 million) are confined inside battery cages.7 Standing practice confines eight hens in a cage so that each bird has less space than a letter-sized piece of paper on which to stand.8 Thus confined, hens are unable to manifest normal behaviors such as nesting and perching.

Hens contained in battery cages on an egg factory farm in Texas, where countless dead birds were discovered in cages with live birds. (Photos courtesy of the Humane Society of the United States.)
Slaughter of chickens. The birds are removed from transport crates and placed upside-down by their legs in shackles onto a conveyor belt. Most chickens are stunned in an electrified water bath, which immobilizes them prior to slaughter via an automated knife, which results in death via exsanguination. Given the rapid speeds of these conveyors (150 birds per minute), some birds miss the knife and are likely still alive before entering a scald tank.8

Sows in gestation crates at a Wyoming pig breeding facility owned by a pork supplier for Tyson Foods and Jimmy Dean.
Slaughter of pigs. Pigs are rendered insensible prior to slaughter using either a captive bolt gun, electric current or CO2 gassing. Each of these stunning methods depends on proper equipment and training of personnel. The animal is then shackled and hoisted by a hind limb and exsanguinated via a cut to the pectoral region.9

Cognitive abilities of chickens. Observation of chickens in their natural environment reveal them to be capable of social attachments and preferences and to have cognitive skills rivaling those of mammals.10

Cognitive abilities of pigs. Pigs are highly intelligent, curious animals. According to a recent study in the journal Animal Cognition, "Animal welfare scientists ... share the opinion that pigs have considerable cognitive abilities. The public's perception of the intelligence of an animal influences the importance attached to its welfare, and many consumers consider farming practices that result in poor animal welfare to be unacceptable."11