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Can Vet J. 2010 September; 51(9): 935–936.
PMCID: PMC2920168

Veterinary Medical Ethics

Ethical question of the month — September 2010

You recently joined a multi-person small animal clinic that has a policy of performing laboratory screening of all patients presented for elective surgeries. At your previous place of employment, only high-risk patients underwent such testing. Since you began to work at this very busy practice you have noticed that at least once per week elective surgeries are being performed prior to the arrival of laboratory results at the clinic. This occurs for a number of reasons, such as when there is a problem at the laboratory that delays reporting of the results, when the owner arrives so late with the patient that the laboratory does not receive the samples in time for results to be reported before the end of the day, or when the surgery schedule is unexpectedly altered to accommodate an emergency. In cases where the test results are not available pre-operatively, there is never an associated adjustment in routine surgical and anesthetic protocols, nor is surgery ever delayed. All clients, regardless of whether their laboratory tests are available or not, are billed for the pre-operative testing. The intention here appears reasonable; however, the practice seems disingenuous. Is there an appropriate manner in which to address this concern with your new employer?

Submitted by Kenn Wood, Ebenezer, Saskatchewan

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 — June 2010

Opponents of animal welfare legislation emphasize that the market for animal products certified as welfare-friendly is small and cite this as evidence that real concern for animal welfare is quite low. Proponents of animal welfare legislation argue that “voting” at the checkout counter does not represent consumers’ actual ethical values. They argue that consumers cannot be expected to weigh each and every purchasing decision — from fuel, to clothing, to appliances, to food — from an ethical standpoint. It is preferable, they reason, to vote once for certain minimum welfare standards to become law so that from that point forward consumers can purchase products of animal origin without reading and comparing labels prior to each purchase. Is the checkout line truly an accurate representation of the ethical values of a consumer society?

An ethicist’s commentary on whether or not animal welfare should be market-based

Moral, non-negotiable presuppositions of social life are not handled well by the market. Certainly, boycotts worked to somewhat improve the situation of African Americans in the 1960s, but genuine elimination of segregation occurred through the Civil Rights Act. Similarly, we could not have eliminated child labor by letting the market decide. Morally based legislation puts all players at the same starting gate. It is becoming clear that the public believes that providing decent accommodations for farm animals is not something to be left to consumer choice, but a presupposition of commerce in animals and animal products. To say that those who want humane conditions for farm animals may pay for it is to ignore the point that such conditions are owed to all farm animals, not only those purchased by the wealthy. We did not, as a culture, say to those who wanted an end to segregation, “Well then buy only from non-segregationist businesses,” since the whole societal substructure, upon which doing any business at all rested, was segregationist!

Letting the market decide would create an arbitrary gulf between animals that receive good welfare and those that do not, based on what people buy, not on the basis of morally relevant differences between animals dictating the sort of treatment they deserve.

Precedent supports our claim. What few laws do protect farm animals, such as the humane slaughter laws or the livestock transport laws, do not pertain only to high end animals or animal products, but are presuppositional to all food animal commerce. There is great moral absurdity in the claims that if you want animals killed humanely, buy from Acme; don’t bother other companies! As social awareness of animal welfare issues has expanded, similar logic is being applied to housing and living situations, not just to slaughter and transport. As society has moved from seeing animals simply as property, no different from machinery, societal demands for higher moral status has accompanied this move. This is well-stated in the Treaty of Lisbon, which went into effect for the European Union in December of 2009. It affirms that “since animals are sentient beings, [member states] shall pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals [in all uses].”

I have little doubt that this extrapolates well to the United States and Canada, particularly in the face of the rise of a massive movement in the field of animal law, mostly dedicated to augmenting animal protection. Over 90 law schools teach courses in animal law.

A die-hard defender of the free-market view might protest that if people are not willing to pay more for humane products, why legislate? The answer is twofold. First of all, some people do not wish to pay more for anything. Second, human psychology is strange. While I, for example, might succumb to the base part of my nature and buy a cheap shirt made by child slave labor while I am in a department store, I would support a law banning such products, based on the previously mentioned notion of moral presuppositions for business and industry. It is for these reasons that asking people what they would pay for a morally produced product does not always indicate their degree of support for it!

The key point is that the ethical obligation component of welfare does not come from producers — it comes from consumers or the general public. And the public has clearly expressed its aversion to animals in high confinement; hence, the move to abolish sow stalls. In the end, the only way the public can see that its will can be transferred to industry operations is through mandated legislation, for all the reasons given above. If the industry wishes to avoid legislation written by people with only a vague knowledge of agriculture, it needs to voluntarily and quickly commit to shouldering the burden of changing modern systems to benefit the animals.


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