This week the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) hosted the Joint International Educational Symposium on Animal Welfare “Swimming with the Tide, Animal Welfare in Veterinary Medical Education and Research”.

More than 200 academicians, veterinarians, animal welfare experts, veterinary students and others attended the two-and-a-half day meeting at Michigan State University. Themes of the conference ran from the evolving discipline of animal welfare, the roles of science and society, animal welfare education and research, meeting societal needs through veterinary education and more. Speakers represented the U.S., Europe, South America, New Zealand, Australia and Canada.

Speaker after speaker discussed how multidisciplinary approaches were necessary for experts and industries to have a dialogue on animal welfare and animal welfare education at veterinary schools.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a meeting where the words “multidisciplinary” and “dialogue” have been used by so many people from so many different countries. While this was certainly a thought-provoking meeting and had a diversity of speakers, the use of those two buzzwords was a little disconcerting because they were not very well defined nor did they have any real definite plans of action behind them, however, some of universities have taken the bull by the horns and have already implemented sound animal welfare courses.

What was readily apparent is that the food-animal veterinary industry does a terrible job of explaining animal welfare and production systems in terms that consumers want to hear them. Consumers don’t want to know the science of “can” we do something on a farm, but “should” we do that something. Veterinarians need to learn how to communicate complex production systems into the information consumers want, which is usually basic reassurances about humane practices and food safety.

I asked Craig Payne, DVM, MS, beef veterinary Extension specialist and clinical assistant professor, University of Missouri, what he felt the key messages were from the meeting. Payne said: “Many of the questions being asked by the public regarding animal use and care in the livestock industry are, at their core, ethical type questions. But, the AVMA/AAVMC meeting made it apparent that very few food animal veterinarians/students adequately respond to these types of questions.

“The main reason for this is we lack formal education in animal ethics so, when we’re asked by the public to justify why we use a particular production practice or production system, we fail to address the question from an ethical standpoint and instead usually respond “Because it increases productivity”. This response doesn’t provide the public with the information they want to know.”

Other interesting quotes from the meeting:

“There is a correlation to the human condition and animal welfare. Animal welfare is correlated with welfare of the human being.” Janice Swanson, PhD, Michigan State University

“We need to address what is a good quality of life for companion or food animal? What is a good quality of death? What is not acceptable to do to animals? Veterinary medicine can help to address that. That would be a nice point of leadership from veterinary medicine.” Candace Croney, PhD, The Ohio State University

“Uses of animals are legitimate but the articulation of the reasons for that are quite weak. I think there needs to be more invested in explaining the basis on which we consider eating animals for food, using them in lab settings and keeping them for pets is a morally legitimate exercise.”
Paul Thompson, PhD, Michigan State University

“Animal welfare science is advancing and developing methodologies to measure animal welfare. Animal welfare is a multidisciplinary science. Societal value and scientific training can play a role in determining what is most important. Scientific design and studies should properly reflect the ‘question asked’ about welfare.” Janice Swanson, PhD, Michigan State University

“Don’t confuse my passion with animal welfare with being emotional about it. There’s a great difference between the two.” Chester Gipson, DVM, USDA-APHIS Animal Care. — Geni Wren, Bovine Veterinarian Magazine