Below are some important issues that veterinarians may face in companion animal practice.
Animal abuse and hoarding
The term animal abuse refers to harm inflicted on animals either through negligence or deliberate acts of cruelty. A “link” between cruelty to animals and acts of violence (see for example) is the driver behind proposed mandatory reporting of animal cruelty by veterinarians. Veterinarians play an important role in recognizing, investigating and prosecuting animal abuse.
Animal hoarding is an under-reported form of animal abuse. It is currently defined as having more than the typical number of animals; failing to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, shelter, and veterinary care, with this neglect often resulting in illness and death from starvation, spread of infectious disease, and untreated injury or medical condition; denial of the inability to provide this minimum care and the impact of that failure on the animals, the household and human occupants of the dwelling and persistence, despite this failure, in accumulating and controlling animals (see this article and this web site).
Animal hoarding is an important animal welfare issue because animal welfare is impacted (usually through deprivation of sufficient or appropriate food, water, shelter, space, socialisation, veterinary care and simulation), the welfare of persons involved is impacted (hoarders often lack utilities, may live in squalor and may be exposed to zoonotic diseases and other risks), and organisations and personnel intervening are impacted in terms of major work health and safety risks and significant costs, for example treating and housing seized animals. In a recent Australian study, 100 per cent of properties owned by persons convicted of hoarding related offences housed animals that required and were not receiving veterinary treatment (see this article). Furthermore, as animal hoarders are often vulnerable, veterinarians may face an ethical dilemma with regard to how much they should intervene or whether they should report the individual involved.
Companion animal husbandry and companion animal welfare science lag behind that of other species. For example, evidence-based guidelines about the keeping of companion animals have only recently emerged in the literature, and may be incomplete. As husbandry has a direct impact on animal health and welfare, companion animal veterinarians must have a solid understanding of husbandry standards to assess husbandry and make appropriate recommendations. (For some guidelines on animal husbandry for companion animals go to this AVMA document. John Webster's book 'Animal Welfare: Limping Towards Eden' has a chapter on companion animal husbandry).
Behaviour and training
Behaviour problems are a common reason for presentation in companion animal practice. In one US study it was estimated that 224,000 dogs and cats were euthanased annually due primarily to behaviour problems. In the same study the majority of veterinarians did not routinely inquire about behaviour and reported a lack of confidence in treating behaviour problems. The veterinary profession has been criticized for conflating good physical health with good welfare, whilst overlooking behavioural aspects (see the letter on pp N23-24 for some reflections on this issue, and click here to link to a Facebook discussion about the Hierarchy of Dog Needs). Companion animal veterinarians need to understand how welfare and behaviour are linked, and how to diagnose and manage behaviour problems. (See some information on behaviour modification here and link to the American Animal Hospital Association Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines).
The breeding of companion animals raises a number of ethical and welfare issues, particularly in the context of the oversupply of dogs and cats in shelters. Many purebred animals are selected for conformations which have a negative impact on the animal’s welfare. As such, current breeding practices have the potential to result in avoidable suffering due to pain, disability, illness and behavioural problems, caused by morphological extremes and increased prevalence of inherited disorders resulting from limited genetic diversity or inbreeding. Increased awareness (for instance via the influential BBC documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed and the ABC interview on Designer Dogs) about such welfare issues has prompted numerous initiatives to increase awareness of the problems and address concerns. The conditions in which dogs are bred may also be detrimental to their welfare, e.g. in puppy mills/farms.
There are many ways in which veterinarians may be involved in breeding. They may have a role in pre, peri and post-natal care as well as performing caesarians and treating reproductive complications. Veterinarians may be required to determine whether the welfare of show animals is acceptable. In addition, veterinarians may be asked to identify individual animals as members of restricted breeds. In order to address welfare problems associated with breeding, veterinarians must have an understanding of the supply and demand for purebred dogs.
Veterinarians are often requested to perform cosmetic or convenience procedures on animals. Examples include ear cropping, tail docking (see for instance the AVMA Position Statement on ear cropping and tail docking, the RSPCA view on tail docking or this scholarly review of the issues) or debarking of dogs, declawing of cats (see the Humane Society's view) or removal of scent glands, venom glands, claws or teeth from other species (for example, removal of scent glands from ferrets). Such procedures are against the interest of animals if they cause acute or chronic pain, increased risk of morbidity and mortality, or disfigurement with no benefit to the animal. (See this article in the Canadian Veterinary Journal for an argument against cosmetic surgery).
Veterinarians must be able to advise clients appropriately regarding euthanasia, and to perform this safely and humanely. Organizations such as the RCVS include this skill in their day one competences. There are a number of situations necessitating euthanasia of companion animals, and each must be judged according to the particular circumstances. Veterinarians must be competent and confident in decision-making around euthanasia and understanding humane end-points for companion animal species. (Here is a link to AVMA guidelines on euthanasia).
The neutering of companion animals is synonymous with responsible ownership in some countries (see material from the AVA and AVMA), yet not in others (for instance some Scandinavian countries). (For a paper which surveys the arguments regarding neutering and makes a case against routine neutering, click here). Neutering is performed for a variety of reasons including minimizing overpopulation, eliminating unwanted reproduction-associated behaviours, complying with registration requirements or agreements with breeders, and minimizing the risk of health problems such as pyometra, mammary tumours, benign prostatic hyperplasia and testicular neoplasia. Nonetheless, neutering may be associated with some negative health effects including increased risk of obesity, some kinds of neoplasia, orthopaedic problems and urinary incontinence (here is a study looking at the long term health effects of neutering dogs and a list of references regarding the risks and benefits of neutering dogs). Veterinarians who perform neutering must counsel owners about the potential risks and benefits of this procedure.
Over-servicing is defined as carrying out more clinical or preventative work on an animal or herd than is needed or was requested by the owner with the intention of generating a higher fee. With an increased number of veterinary graduates and pressure from employers to maximize invoicing and up-sell services to clients, understanding the concept of over-servicing and the ethics around this is important for companion animal veterinarians. Here is a short discussion of this complex and contentious issue.
Shelter medicine is a rapidly developing field, as evidenced by the American Veterinary Medical Association granting provisional recognition to the Shelter Medicine Practice specialty within the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners and the rise of centres focused on shelter medicine. Veterinarians working in the shelter environment require knowledge and skills in medicine, surgery, emergency care, behavioural health, epidemiology, infectious disease and population health. In addition, knowledge of primary care, ethics, welfare, animal enrichment, animal cruelty investigations, community outreach and public policy issues are required.
Click on this link to a BBC article canvassing the ethical issues around keeping companion animals.
References cited above
Webster, J. (2005). Animal Welfare: Limping Towards Eden. A practical approach to redressing the problem of our dominion over the animals. Blackwell publishing.