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Can Vet J. 2010 May; 51(5): 447–451.
PMCID: PMC2857421

Veterinary Medical Ethics

Ethical question of the month — May 2010

Public policies involving agriculture commonly produce negative reactions in the farming community. Examples of such policies include environmental protection rules, banning of horse slaughter, livestock building restrictions, endangered species acts, and animal welfare requirements. Each of these produces added costs for farmers and is particularly punitive when competitors in other provinces or countries are not faced with equivalent regulatory burdens. Regulations on farm practices benefit the majority while the costs are borne by the minority, that is, those in agricultural production. These policies give a false sense of accomplishment to the voting public. The outcome desired, that is, to improve agricultural practices, is often not realized as it makes more economic sense to move production and, therefore, the problem, to another jurisdiction. Can agriculture be treated fairly by lawmakers when agricultural producers represent such a small percentage of the voting public?

Responses to the case presented are welcome. Please limit your reply to approximately 50 words and forward along with your name and address to: Ethical Choices, c/o Dr. Tim Blackwell, Veterinary Science, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, 6484 Wellington Road 7, Unit 10, Elora, Ontario N0B 1S0; telephone: (519) 846-3413; fax: (519) 846-8178; e-mail:

Suggested ethical questions of the month are also welcome! All ethical questions or scenarios in the ethics column are based on actual events, which are changed, including names, locations, species, etc., to protect the confidentiality of the parties involved.

Ethical question of the month — February 2010

Animal rights groups are routinely condemned as extremist organizations dedicated to ending livestock agriculture and laboratory animal research. These groups have produced, and continue to produce, incontrovertible video evidence of animal abuse occurring on farms, slaughterhouses, and other facilities. While the extremists post undeniable evidence of animal cruelty on the Internet, many veterinarians working in animal agriculture and laboratory animal medicine condemn these groups as being “out of touch with reality.” Do veterinarians damage their own integrity when they condemn groups with irrefutable evidence of animal abuse occurring in the various industries they serve?


Je ne travaille pas encore au Canada mais je suis adhérent à l’ACMV et je me permets de répondre à cette sollicitation d’un avis sur une question déontologique car cette problématique est commune à tous les vétérinaires, au moins dans le monde industrialisé, et parce qu’elle rejoint aussi une autre problématique qui m’intéresse particulièrement.

Les vétérinaires portent-ils atteinte à leur propre intégrité en condamnant des groupes lorsque des preuves irréfutables de violence envers les animaux ont été observées dans les diverses industries qu’ils desservent?

À mon avis oui.

La question serait plutôt, qu’est-ce qui les empêche réellement de dénoncer eux aussi publiquement ces actes de cruauté?

Au-delà des habituels mécanismes de conformité au sein des groupes et des réactions corporatistes, ce sont surtout les mesures de rétorsion dont ils peuvent faire l’objet en donnant raison à des contradicteurs externes, et qui s’ajoutent à la peur de se trouver accusés par la société civile de la co-responsabilité de ces actes.

Ceci fait partie de la problématique, de plus en plus émergente dans le monde scientifique, du donneur d’alerte, de son statut et de sa protection.

C’est un dossier important pour les vétérinaires, il concerne les fondamentaux de notre profession et nécessiterait une analyse approfondie.

Dr. Gianfranco Valent, 4 rue Ampère, 78130 Les Mureaux, France

I do not work in Canada, but I am a member of the CVMA and I am replying to this request for an opinion on an ethics question, since this problem is common to veterinarians in the industrialized world, and because it also touches on another issue which is of particular interest to me.

Do veterinarians damage their own integrity when they condemn groups with irrefutable evidence of animal abuse occurring in the various industries they serve? In my opinion, yes. The question should be rather, What is really preventing them from also publicly denouncing these acts of cruelty? Beyond the usual mechanisms of conformity amongst corporate groups, it is mostly retaliatory measures which can be imposed on them by agreeing with external opposition, compounded by the fear of being accused by the public of a shared responsibility for these acts.

This is part of a problem emerging in the scientific world; that of the whistleblower, of his or her status and protection. This is an important issue for veterinarians, as it concerns the fundamentals of our profession, and as such, requires an in-depth analysis.

Dr. Gianfranco Valent, 4 rue Ampère, 78130 Les Mureaux, France

Veterinarians should be at the forefront of those professionals concerned with animal welfare. Furthermore, society demands this from veterinarians, who are expected to give importance to animals’ rights and welfare. Animal abuse can’t be denied in the face of incontrovertible video evidence and veterinarians must clearly align themselves with the opposition to animal abuse rather than become angry with animal rights activists. Otherwise, the public may develop negative attitudes towards veterinarians who choose the path of contradiction related to animal abuse allegations.

The ‘3R’ principles (replacement, reduce, refinement) should be followed by veterinarians involved in laboratory animal research. The ‘five freedoms’ (freedom from hunger and thirst; discomfort; pain, injury, or disease; fear and distress; and to express normal behavior) should be applied to animals in farms, slaughterhouses, and other facilities.

Serdar İzmirli, PhD, Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics, Gatton, QLD, University of Queensland, Australia

Quite frankly, I grow weary of this type of debate. Finding common ground on divergent views is hard work and this type of rhetoric does little to advance the cause of animals or people. Why is it that society uses legislation to deal with other well-documented egregious acts of cruelty (toward pets, children, or other vulnerable members of society, for that matter), but in the case of animal agriculture or laboratory animal medicine the solution of the self-described “extremists” is to unilaterally end the practice entirely? I doubt you will find a veterinarian who would not condemn acts of cruelty perpetrated on any animal and to frame this as a question of integrity is the classic straw man argument. Shouldn’t we be discussing more substantive issues like how we will sustainably feed a planet requiring 70% more food by 2050 (1) or provide basic medical care for the billions of people who currently have little to none? The credibility gap in this case isn’t with the messenger but, rather, with the message.

An ethicist’s commentary on whether veterinarians should condemn activist attacks on confinement agriculture?

Former Purdue Dean of Veterinary Medicine Hugh Lewis once told me that, when he assumed the deanship, he surveyed Indiana users of veterinary services regarding their degree of satisfaction with those services. The animal agricultural community responded that while they were very happy with medical and nutritional information provided by veterinarians, they were disappointed that veterinarians did not warn them when practices were likely to run afoul of societal ethical concerns for animal welfare. I also heard the same point made by the executive director of a major state veterinary association.

As I recently said in a speech given to the Bovine Respiratory Disease Symposium in August 2009, later published in Cambridge Animal Health Research Reviews, animal agricultural veterinarians, as committed to animal health and welfare by the very nature of their profession, should not be simply accepting the fact that well over 90% of what they treat are production diseases, resulting from how the animals are produced but, rather, should be actively working to fix pathogenic systems and methods. Instead, at least in the United States, organized agricultural veterinarians have been the most ardent defenders of current severe confinement systems, implausibly arguing that such systems are better for animal welfare. It was bitterly ironic to me that the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) announced that no system of sow housing was superior to any other, at roughly the same time as Smithfield Farms, the world’s largest pork producer, announced that they were committed to phasing out sow gestation crates after a long conversation with me on social ethics regarding severe confinement systems.

Sow stalls are clearly not acceptable to societal ethics; witness landslide victories in referenda banning them in multiple states. Yet clearly, neither veterinary medicine, nor much of the industry (with the exception of Smithfield) understands that issues of animal welfare are not answered simply by “sound science,” but are at root matters of ethics — what do we owe the animals under our aegis, and to what extent?

Does taking a very conservative, or indeed reactionary, stance on farm animal welfare issues hurt the public image of veterinary medicine? Most assuredly! Witness a full-page New York Times ad that appeared a few years ago attacking veterinary medicine for supporting confinement agriculture. Witness the excellent principles of farm animal welfare developed by the California Veterinary Medical Association to accord with public opinion in that progressive state, as well as their support of the proposition 2 referendum abolishing sow stalls, veal crates, and battery cages. And witness AVMA’s quixotic attack on the Pew commission report on confinement agriculture (on which I served) and, particularly, their condemnation of the claim that overuse of antibiotics on farms is part of what drives antibiotic resistance of human pathogens, a position based on science that emerged from the Centers for Disease Control, the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, the World Health Organization, Harvard, and other major respected scientific institutions. So outrageous were their claims, that many of my friends in agricultural veterinary medicine professed dismay that the major veterinary organization in the United States embraced such an absurd position.

Veterinarians, in sum, should not be the most shrill voices defending the indefensible, but should rather be leading the movement for realistic reform of animal agriculture to make it accord with societal ethics. That is after all what society expects from veterinarians as animal advocates. To fail these expectations is to erode the credibility of veterinary medicine in society. Nor should veterinarians be killing the messenger who exposes atrocities. When my colleagues and I in Animal Sciences at Colorado State University are sent videos depicting atrocities on farms, we do not hesitate to condemn such atrocities, and do so in writing, regardless of the source, as long as we believe the videos to be accurate. As one of my animal science colleagues put it, “right is right and wrong is wrong.” In so far as radical groups expose animal abuse, they should be thanked, not vilified.


Use of this article is limited to a single copy for personal study. Anyone interested in obtaining reprints should contact the CVMA office ( gro.vmca-amvc@nothguorbh) for additional copies or permission to use this material elsewhere.


1. United Nations World Summit on Food Security; Rome: Nov, 2009. [Last accessed March 16, 2010]. Available at

Articles from The Canadian Veterinary Journal are provided here courtesy of Canadian Veterinary Medical Association