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  • Writer's pictureClaudia Hirtenfelder

“Here for the animals”: Observations from a conference on Veterinary Ethics

Updated: Oct 15, 2023

Veterinary practitioners are routinely faced with ethical quandaries within their profession. At the recent Veterinary Ethics Conference in Vienna from 27-29 September 2023, veterinary practitioners and ethicists grappled with challenges in teaching, practicing, and regulating the profession.

Arguably one of the key themes throughout the conference was a discussion as to what constituted veterinary ethics and the directions it should be heading. For Peter Sandøe, a researcher of animal welfare at the University of Copenhagen, veterinary ethics can best be thought of as both a form of applied ethics and a form of professional ethics. It is a growing field of study and a professional practice. However, what makes veterinary ethics distinctive is, Sandøe argues, that it shapes the professional identity. “We are” he says, “here for the animals.” However, over the course of the conference, it became clear that what is meant by “here for the animals” is not uniformly agreed on or easily defined.

The sheer scale of differences in veterinary practice makes creating a uniformed ethical approach difficult. Whereas medical doctors are focused on one species (humans) the veterinary profession responds to the health and welfare needs of multiple species. This leads to gaps in the type of health care available. Whereas many vets are, for instance, trained in how to care for companion animals (like dogs and cats) there are few who specialise in supposedly exotic or small animals. Furthermore, in practice, vets daily make choices that are a matter of life and death. They are often tasked with killing healthy animals because policy or owners ask them to do so. That is, not only do vets’ personal and professional values sometimes come into conflict but they must navigate tricky terrain which involves meeting the needs of their patients (the animals) while at the same time managing the desires of their clients (the animal owners). The disjuncture between personal and professional ethical demands as well as between the welfare of animal and the expectations of owners causes what is often referred to as “moral stress.” Moral stress contributes to the high rates of depression and suicide in the veterinary profession as well as the low retention rates of new graduates.

Veterinary students are often disillusioned once they start to practice, and many leave the profession a few years after graduation. At the conference, this raised questions about whether the ethical training provided to students was adequate. Susana Sternberg Lewerin, professor of Epizootology and Infection Control at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Sweden, noted that students are generally very interested in questions related to ethics, but that ethical theory is often much more complex than they expect. Furthermore, students’ exposure to ethics by ethicists is often limited and rarely incorporated into their clinical work and practice. Despite consensus that ethical reflection is necessary for effective veterinary practice, time spent in classrooms learning about such theory is short-lived. Kate Miller, from the Centre of Applied Bioethics at the University of Nottingham, is researching whether such materials are, in fact “fit or purpose” and to discover whether ethical training in the classroom adequately prepares students for the “moral stress and personal conflicts” that come with the job. For Miller, the lack of attention afforded to how ethical quandaries shape the experience of veterinary practitioners, particularly early career practitioners, is necessary to understand why so many leave the profession shortly after graduating.

Perhaps one of the best presentations to illustrate how ethical challenges shape the veterinary profession was provided by Anne Quain, a veterinarian and animal welfare scholar at the University of Sydney, who gave a presentation titled: “Why it’s bad to be good: Field notes from a career in veterinary ethics.” After reflecting on how her childhood was coloured with ethical quandaries that stretched from the home to the nation, Quain said “I learned you can’t take justice for granted.” As a graduate student versed in feminist theory and ethics, Quain trained as a vet and found herself, early in her career, asking what it means to be “a good vet.” She reflected on how working at a shelter left her feeling overwhelmed and that the “invisible cloak of responsibility” was extremely difficult to manage. Turning to the animal-industrial complex, and the massive suffering found in agriculture, Quain asked “at what point is routine husbandry cruelty?” Cutting to the heart of challenges found within animal welfare Quain said: “Good can be bad if it is exploited by bad people.” She further contended that those who aren’t moved by the mass killing of animals should, at the very least, be concerned with the stress of those tasked with killing them. Quain argues that it is essential to develop moral communities that resist the trope of vets as moral heroes and provide space for them to reflect on their vulnerability, embodiment, purpose, and accountability.

Anne Quain gives a keynote presentation

Such accountability is, however, complicated by the legal frameworks in which veterinary practitioners operate. Stef Aerts, a Visiting Professor of Veterinary Ethics at Ghent University, noted that in Belgium vets have an obligation to maintain the secrecy of their clients while at the same time protecting animal welfare. However, vets who disagree with the treatment of animals by owners are vulnerable to retaliation and ridicule if they report instances of animal cruelty. Aerts concluded that “a duty to report” is imperative. This is an important point because while vets are vulnerable, they are also some of the few people who have access to the often invisibilized spaces and practices in which animals live, including slaughterhouses, industrial operations, and the insides of homes. Depending on their practice, vets have insights into how animals are treated, transported, bred, and killed. Aerts assertion of a “duty to report” prompted a fascinating discussion about how veterinarians should navigate the welfare of animals with legal expectations and the interests of their clients.

At the heart of this debate is the property status of animals. As Karen Hiestand, a lecturer in Veterinary and Animal Ethics at the Royal Veterinary College, argued in her presentation animal welfare law and property law are in tension with one another. Regulatory and legal frameworks protect the autonomy of owners, not animals, making it difficult for vets to intervene on behalf of their patients. This has led to a common idea, particularly in the era of One Health considerations, that perhaps vets are the best positioned people to act as proxy decision makers for animals’ interests. Hiestand is not so sure. Provocatively she asserted that while many vets believe that they are “here for the animals” the question remains as to whether or not they are “any good at it.” “I’m not sure I want us to be in charge,” she admitted. Despite being highly trained in animal health vets are, Hiestand reminds us, people who are vulnerable to their own biases and who might not be as well-versed in animal welfare and ethics as they believe.

Hosted by the Messerli Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, this three-day conference included four keynote presentations, 6 workshops, and over 40 presentations that discussed topics as wide ranging as moral stress, food production, professional identity, clinical support, codes of conduct, and animal experimentation. Ethicists, researchers, practitioners, and administrators came together to think through veterinary practice and what it’s future might entail. There are certainly calls for changes in teaching, regulation, and practice and at the core of these is a central question, what does it mean to be “here for the animals”?


Claudia Towne Hirtenfelder, founder and host of The Animal Turn, attended the conference on the 27th and 28th of September 2023 as Press (Photo by Thomas Suchanek).

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