Global Animal Welfare Issues and the Small Animal Practitioner
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2014
G. Anzuino1, BVM&S, MSc CertWEL, MRCVS; K. Anzuino, BVM&S, CertWEL, PGCE, DEngLaw (Open), MRCVS
1World Animal Protection, London, UK


Small animal veterinarians and veterinary nurses play an important role in the welfare of the animals that they encounter in their daily work. Whilst recognising and valuing this contribution, this paper calls upon them to engage more actively with the subject areas of animal welfare and ethics. This would involve issues, both relevant to their current areas of work and for areas involving animals that may not seem directly relevant to them, on a local and global stage. The potential benefits of this engagement are highlighted with examples. The importance of continuing professional development in the relevant disciplines is emphasized.

Animal Welfare and Ethics

Safeguarding animal welfare is an integral role of the veterinary profession and is often included in the veterinary oath. Veterinary professionals are arguably best placed in society to advocate for animals due to their extensive training, skill set, understanding and experience working with animals, and their compassion. Veterinary professionals could increase their impact on animal welfare by further developing their skills in animal welfare and ethics.

Animal welfare can be defined in many ways. The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), an intergovernmental veterinary body that represents 180 member countries, has a practical definition.1 At its most basic, animal welfare involves asking the two questions 'Is the animal healthy?' and 'Does it have what it wants?'2 The 'five freedoms',3 whilst having limitations, still effectively guide the areas to consider when measuring welfare.

Accurate assessments of welfare are important for informing ethical decisions concerning animals. A whole area of scientific study and evidence base for animal welfare exists.4 There are many comprehensive, well-written books on animal welfare. Examples of online resources include those of specialized groups, such as the Farm Animal Welfare Committee (previously Farm Animal Welfare Council)5 and Companion Animal Welfare Council,6 through to those increasingly provided via veterinary organisations, such as the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) website launched this year.7 The 3rd edition of Concepts in Animal Welfare produced by World Animal Protection8 offers a comprehensive animal welfare teaching syllabus, bringing teachers and students the latest animal welfare research, ethics and law illustrated by worldwide examples, with ongoing development for specific target groups.

Animal welfare is affected by human behaviour, with stakeholders such as farmers, pet owners, animal scientists, veterinarians, consumers of animal products and citizens holding differing perspectives and viewpoints. Decision making can be improved by understanding and using a systematic approach to ethical analysis that veterinarians can be trained in. This allows the reasons underlying decisions to be clearly identified and evaluated, leading to better decisions.

In recent years, animal welfare and ethics has increasingly been included in the undergraduate veterinary curriculum, but there is still little attention to these subjects in continuing professional development.

Advocacy on Global Animal Welfare

Animal welfare advocacy involves influencing people's behaviour so they make decisions that improve the lives of animals. Effective advocacy requires multidisciplinary skills such as understanding the emotional and social environment, as well as the science, and being able to communicate with a broad range of stakeholder groups. By furthering their skills in animal welfare and ethics, veterinary professionals will be better placed to advocate at a variety of levels. Veterinary professionals could optimise what they do at a local level when presented with animals in the clinic. Clinical training guides as to the next possible step to take, for example in terms of diagnostics and treatment options. However, veterinary professionals have to weigh up the best course of action in the individual situation, which is inevitably influenced by beliefs and expectations of owners and different domestic circumstances, including financial and practical constraints. Overtreatment can be as detrimental to welfare as lack of appropriate treatment.

It can alleviate stress and increase confidence to know that the subject areas of welfare and ethics are as evidence based and credible as the clinical subjects, and to use these to underpin difficult decisions. Similarly, when veterinarians can clearly justify their recommendations and decisions and articulate them in a way that demonstrates solidarity with other veterinary professionals when responding to difficult situations, a better working environment is likely to be achieved.

Veterinary professionals will also be better equipped to engage at the level of policy formulation and education, thus addressing the 'bigger picture'. Vets often face challenging and potentially demoralising situations in their daily work. Examples include being asked to euthanase healthy animals because they are unwanted or have behavioural problems that could have been prevented. These problems are created by society, and veterinary professionals are left to try and resolve the consequences for the animals concerned. By taking part in campaigns aimed at raising awareness and prevention, either as a practice or through veterinary associations, they can improve both animal welfare and their own job satisfaction.

There is a role for small animal veterinary professionals in welfare issues further afield. The current level of interconnectedness and globalisation is without precedence. Local welfare issues concerning companion animals are now being replicated worldwide, along with trends in pet owning increasingly following western lifestyles. In 2013, WSAVA launched its 'Global Outreach' initiative to help share the knowledge and experience of its members more widely around the world. This, along with other routes of engagement, can help veterinarians understand each other's operating context across the globe, leading to increased respect, solidarity and potential for collaboration towards improved animal health and welfare. Local issues can, through mass media, information communication technology, international trade and transport, become global and vice versa. For example, a coffee purchased from a local café made with coffee beans from Ethiopia could have implications for the welfare of the donkey used in its transport. Though the plight of an overworked donkey with no medical care may not elicit the same moral concern as child labour, the link to human welfare is clear, though both are often hidden from the final western consumer. There are opportunities through understanding and collaboration, especially through international veterinary networks, to improve these situations. Improving the medical care of working equids can impact on human welfare also. It can highlight the need for a public good approach to health care in developing countries where current economics and existing infrastructures do not support acceptable levels of animal welfare. World Animal Protection is leading a global movement calling for a declaration to promote animal welfare at a global level, the Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare (UDAW)9 backed by the United Nations, which would create a baseline for animal care and treatment that every nation in the world can work towards.

Small animal practice is linked indirectly with other global welfare issues, for example, by virtue of the cat food sold or medicines prescribed. Farm animals and laboratory animals respectively are integral to these products. These 'other' animals have a similar level of sentience to many of the species small animal veterinary professionals treat directly. There is potential to build on the bond that owners have with companion animals and to extend their concern to other animals and species as part of the relationship they have with their veterinary practice.

Fifty years ago, Ruth Harrison10 alerted the world to industrial farming and the associated suffering of farm animals through her book Animal Machines and its subsequent serialization in a British newspaper. This transformed the legal and moral landscape for animals in the UK, Europe and arguably the world. Veterinarians were largely silent, neglecting their advocacy role, as industrialization of farming took place. World Animal Protection was fortunate to have Ruth as a Board Director in the 1980s and has now a specific strategy to support veterinarians to be at the forefront of animal welfare. This strategy involves working with veterinary associations and the OIE to support its main core programme stream aimed at improving the welfare of animals used for farming, wild animals, animals in disaster zones, as well as street dog population management and eradication of canine rabies. Support to the veterinary profession is through agreements or MOU with the OIE and with veterinary associations at international, regional and national levels. Veterinary practices are, of course, professional businesses and, as such, they need to balance the needs and expectation of their clients against any advocacy they undertake. Small animal veterinarians are potentially in a strong position to advocate for animals, particularly for farmed animals, as they do not service agriculture. They are freer from these pressures but still have the skill to understand and communicate the issues and are credible sources.

Advocating for animals is likely to make good business sense, with veterinary professionals being seen to meet the general societal expectation that they will be role models regarding human interactions with animals. They, thus, retain their hard-earned credibility and respect. It is possible clients may even look to veterinary professionals for other direction in their lifestyle choices, such as the use of fur or free-range food.


The veterinary profession has more potential than any other profession to advocate for animal welfare. By engaging with animal welfare and ethics, small animal veterinary professionals will be better placed to improve animal welfare, both through the decisions they make themselves and through influencing the general public at large.


1.  World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

2.  What do animals want? A conversation with Marian Stamp Dawkins [10.31.12]. Edge Foundation, Inc.

3.  McCulloch SP. A critique of FAWC's Five Freedoms as a framework. J Agric Environ Ethics. 2013;26:959–975.

4.  Animal Mosaic. (VIN editor: Link could not be accessed as of 11-16-2015).

5.  Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC).

6.  Companion Animal Welfare Council (CAWC). (VIN editor: Link could not be accessed as of 11-04-2015).

7.  Animal welfare: responsibility & opportunity.

8.  Concepts in animal welfare. (VIN editor: Link could not be accessed as of 11-16-2015).

9.  Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare (UDAW).

10. van de Weerd H, Sandilands V. Bringing the issue of animal welfare to the public: a biography of Ruth Harrison (1920–2000). Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2008;113:404–410.


Speaker Information
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G. Anzuino, BVM&S, MSc CertWEL, MRCVS
World Animal Protection
London, UK