Bernard E. Rollin, PhD, holds dual faculty appointments at ColoradoStateUniversity’s department of philosophy and College of Veterinary Medicine, and is recognized as a thought leader in ethics as applied to human treatment of animals. He poses this question: “To whom does the veterinarian owe primary allegiance, animal or owner?” Rollin says most lean towards the “pediatrician model”, believing their role is to improve the health and welfare of animals similar to a pediatrician and a child. The public, he adds, also favor this concept.

In husbandry-based animal agriculture, Rollin says, the veterinarian’s job was to prevent disease, preserve good health, or, if necessary, treat a sick animal if it was cost-effective to do so, or to provide a good death if it was not. Through history, animal agriculture was based in animal husbandry, with good treatment in the best interest of farmers and veterinarians for assuring good production.

But since World War II, Rollin says, this has changed. University departments of animal husbandry became departments of animal science. “With technological sanders – hormones, vaccines, antibiotics, air handling systems, and mechanization – we could force square pegs into round holes and place animals into environments where they suffered in ways irrelevant to productivity,” he says. The new approach to animal agriculture was developed out of efforts to supply the public with cheap and plentiful food. In the process, agriculture and the veterinary profession have shifted away from husbandry toward a more industrial approach focused on productivity. But, he says, productivity is an economic notion predicated of a whole operation; welfare is predicated of individual animals. 

Rollin says an animal’s welfare, throughout the production process, should be considered in terms of ‘five freedoms’

  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst
  2. Freedom from Discomfort
  3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease
  4. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior
  5. Freedom from Fear and Distress

Our current emphasis on productivity, Rollin says, results in a high incidence of “production diseases,” which are pathological conditions in an animal resulting exclusively or overwhelmingly from the way the animal is bred for, used, or kept in a production system. BRD, he says, is an example of a production disease. “While BRD or shipping fever is multi-factorial, a major part of its etiology is the stress of confinement and transport and mixing of cattle. Pastoral beef cattle slaughtered near home would not show current rates of shipping fever.”

Rollin says good health is a key feature, and production diseases are thus counter to good welfare.  If the essence of veterinary medicine is to act like a physician for animals, it clearly cannot accept treating production diseases which are preventable by changing the system of production. “Veterinary medicine should not accept the status quo and band-aid pathogenic systems.”

Veterinarians, he says, with the support of the new social ethic, should pioneer in the redesign of livestock production systems. These systems should first assure the health and welfare of the animals, then try to maximize profit. “It is very likely that agriculture can and will rise to the challenge of reinvesting itself taking cognizance of the other values hitherto neglected.” He says. “It is fitting that veterinarians, who should be guardians of animal health and welfare, lead this change.”