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Can Vet J. 2010 August; 51(8): 807–810.
PMCID: PMC2904998

Veterinary Medical Ethics

Ethical question of the month — August 2010

You have just finished a call to a long-time feedlot client. As you are cleaning up, one of the hired hands asks if you could castrate a stray tomcat that the cowboys have become particularly fond of. You ask that they bring the cat to the clinic, but the clinic is 150 km away and no one has time to make that drive for a stray cat. “If you can’t do it doc, we understand,” they say, “we can do it ourselves; just thought it might be nicer for the cat if you did it.” You have injectable, reversible anesthetics in the truck and know you can do a better and more humane job than these well-meaning farm hands. You also see this as a teaching opportunity regarding the importance of pain control for all animals including feedlot cattle. You are not going to address the problems related to them doing the surgery, since they routinely castrate and dehorn cattle without anesthetics and have castrated cats many times before. Should you acquiesce to their request and risk your license to practice, let the cat be castrated without anesthesia, or try to rationalize the need to have the surgery performed at your clinic?

Submitted by Roy Lewis, Westlock Veterinary Centre, Westlock, Alberta

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 — 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 policies produces added costs for farmers, which 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?


The answer to the question, “Can agriculture be treated fairly by lawmakers when agricultural producers represent such a small percentage of the voting public?” is a resounding yes.

The preamble to the question would have the reader believe that agriculture is the only industry that is expected to conduct its business in accordance with the will of the electorate, when in fact, this applies to all industries. In British Columbia, forestry, mining, oil and gas exploration, as well as agriculture industries are expected to carry out their activities in a sustainable manner that leaves future generations with the same opportunities available to us.

As co-chair of the BC Ranching Task Force I can assure readers that producers in this province (and I am sure all across Canada), are among the best stewards of the environment and the animals under their care. They understand better than any the tremendous benefit derived from the land.

Consumers also demand this type of stewardship and if marketed appropriately are willing to pay a premium to ensure it is upheld. As policy makers, we must recognize the ecological goods and services provided by agriculture and provide tools to ensure farmers and ranchers can make a decent living while doing the right thing.

Terry Lake, DVM, MLA Kamloops North Thompson, Parliamentary Secretary for the Ranching Task Force

An ethicist’s commentary on the majority treating agriculture unfairly

I find it odd to speak of “treating agriculture fairly” in this context. It is not as if the general public is arbitrarily picking on agriculture in an irrational, bullying way. Lawmakers are simply reacting to a whole host of ethical and prudential issues that have emerged from recent examination of modern agriculture of the sort ably accomplished by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, on which I served ( Comprising 15 world-renowned experts in fields ranging from public health to animal welfare, the commission examined confinement agriculture for over 2 1/2 years before issuing its report. In the report, the issues examined included environmental despoliation and degradation resulting from effluent emitted by large confinement animal feeding operations (CAFOS); severe and multiple issues of confined animal welfare pertaining to such systems; loss of small farmers and a tendency of a few very large corporate operators to dominate agriculture; loss of rural communities made up of small producers; and issues of public health resulting from ground and water contamination and overuse of antimicrobials, which renders bacteria resistant to antibiotics and threatens human health. Emerging zoonotic diseases, brewed in confinement, represent yet another threat. Farmers and farm workers are often those most afflicted by such diseases.

Equally important, the commission established that “cheap food” produced by industrial animal agriculture was only “cheap” at the register. Very many of the costs required by such systems were in fact borne by the general public as costs were “externalized.” Thus, for example, the money required to maintain roads leading in and out of large confinement operations comes not from the industry, but from taxpayers. In the same vein, major health care costs as well as costs in physical and mental health are borne by those living in proximity to confined feeding operations. Pollution of waterways, and loss of property values due to odor are common problems associated with such operations.

These problems and others contribute to a loss of what is fashionable to call “sustainability” of agricultural systems. (Sustainable systems are, as it were, “balanced aquariums” which are self-perpetuating with minimum inputs.) Civilization cannot, of course, endure without a sustainable food supply.

Thus, it is unfair to suggest that society is throwing its weight around to oppress agriculture. The issues delineated above are extremely serious and indeed vital to social survival. In fact, one can marvel at the degree to which society permitted industrial agriculture to proceed unchecked for so long. Now that society has come to understand the negative implications of this kind of agriculture, small wonder that it is pressing for solutions.

It is a classic scare tactic to suggest that if society continues to constrain the negative aspects of modern agriculture, agriculture will take its ball and go home. The same approach was advanced after Proposition 2 passed in California abolishing sow stalls, veal crates, and battery cages for laying hens: agriculture will move offshore, to Mexico, out-of-state. Thus far, this has not occurred. I am morally certain one heard similar arguments when child and slave labor was abolished. Just as industry adjusted and did not go offshore, I am morally certain that agriculture will adjust to societal demands, and will reinvent itself in a more socially acceptable form.


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.

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