Ethics and Animal Welfare

Chapter 28
Ethics and Animal Welfare

Joy M. Verrinder and Clive J.C. Phillips

Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics, School of Veterinary Science, University of Queensland, Australia


Veterinary educators teaching animal welfare and, more rarely, animal ethics (how humans should behave toward animals) find themselves in an invidious position when determining what to teach. On the one hand, the future veterinarians will on graduating, by virtue of their detailed knowledge of animal form and function, always be regarded as one of the primary sources of information about the welfare of animals. To take on this responsibility effectively and with a good conscience, students need to be aware of, sensitive to, and capable of managing the many welfare issues with which they will be confronted. On the other hand, there will be pressures on veterinarians, in particular financial ones, to act in ways that support their clients and are not necessarily in the animals’ best interests. Many of the animals that they treat are involved in an economic enterprise, for food production in particular, and the managers of these enterprises will often be required to take the course of action that maximizes profit, which may preclude expensive veterinary treatment. Similarly, the welfare of many companion animals may be compromised by both owners’ treatment requirements not matching those recommended by veterinarians and a surplus of animals in the community. Such dilemmas facing the veterinary student on graduation potentially lead to a disregard for the animals’ interests and consequent moral distress. Moral distress occurs “when one knows the right thing to do, but institutional or other constraints make it difficult to pursue the desired course of action” (Raines, 2000, p. 30). A UK study found that veterinary practitioners experience stressful ethical dilemmas regularly, with most reporting one or two ethical dilemmas weekly, and one-third of practitioners reporting three to five per week in relation to animal ethics issues (Batchelor and McKeegan, 2012). One way in which veterinary schools deal with this is to desensitize veterinary students to the animals’ interests. This is pursued by some staff in veterinary faculties because they perceive that it is necessary for students to cope with working in the animal industries and engaging in practices on animals that do not take full account of the animals’ interests, for example tail docking in dogs or cattle. Staff may be defensive about breeding animals specifically for surgery practice for students, or about using apparently unwanted animals for this purpose.

However, the animal welfare and/or ethics instructor is responsible for ensuring that all students graduate with sufficient knowledge, understanding, and skills of animal welfare and ethics (AWE) to equip them to deal with welfare issues, not minimize or avoid them. Animal ethics in this respect should not be confused with professional ethics, the former requiring us to consider how we should treat animals, the latter usually concerned with how we should act in accordance with the veterinary profession’s codes of conduct. To teach AWE, instructors need to be aware of the major animal welfare concerns in the most important animal industries, which include issues where it is expensive to provide adequately for the animals’ welfare, for example provision of pain relief to farm livestock when invasive procedures are conducted. The availability of adequate space is another major cause for concern, and so too are modifications to the animal to make it suit an economic production system, either by mutilating the body or by breeding for better performance, be it greater productivity, in the case of animals for food; greater appeal to the public, in the case of animals for companionship; or faster racing skills, in sport animals. Animal welfare and ethics educators can address these problems in two ways: they can attempt to describe all the major issues for all the industries, or they can attempt to draw out principles relating to the most common animal welfare problems, such as would emerge from an assessment of animal welfare in a dairy herd. Through these carefully chosen examples, they can analyze the problems that exist and how they can be addressed. The latter approach is advocated, since it teaches students to be proactive rather than just passively learn facts.

Veterinarians’ Responsibilities for Animal Welfare

Veterinarians are seen as educators in animal welfare because of their expertise in animal-related topics, using their skills to teach their clients and the broader community about welfare issues. They are increasingly frequently becoming involved in public policy debates and in establishing appropriate regulatory frameworks to manage AWE to the satisfaction of the public. The One Welfare movement recognizes that human and animal welfare are closely linked (Dolby and Litster, 2015). Veterinarians can also take a preemptive role in developing local competitiveness between animal producers to enhance welfare (Pritchard et al., 2012), or in analyzing new initiatives to identify possible ethical issues before they become entrenched in practice (Vergés, 2010), thereby preventing considerable disruption and intransigence.

Veterinarians have responsibilities to their clients, animal consumers, and the public more generally, but their fundamental responsibility lies in maintaining animals in a good welfare state. Veterinarians may be faced with the ethical dilemma of whether to treat animals in a system that they believe cannot possibly provide good welfare, for example chickens in battery cages, or whether to allow someone else to do this. Their responsibility for animals’ welfare is shared with stockpeople, animal transporters, animal breeders, and a range of people with more limited roles in the provision of specific aspects of the animals’ life. The primacy of the animal welfare responsibilities of veterinarians is recognized in some countries by an oath sworn at graduation in which they promise to uphold the welfare of animals within their charge (WSAVA, 2015). As such, developing skills in animal welfare and ethical behavior toward animals may be seen as the ultimate objective of veterinary training, although secondary goals of improving public health, supporting a viable rural environment, and fostering good human–animal interactions must be acknowledged.

Veterinarians operate largely in a clinical setting, and animal welfare education is the fundamental goal of clinical skills training, which is currently being supported by the opening of clinical skills laboratories in many veterinary schools worldwide (Rösch et al., 2014). These are stocked with models and equipment for students to learn and practice key skills for treating animals, while maintaining a distance from the live animal for ethical reasons. Although some students fear that such opportunities could replace live animal practice, most students welcome the chance to improve their skills in tasks such as suturing, rectal examination, surgery, injection, ultrasound, obstetrics, blood sampling, X-ray, bandaging, and intubation (Rösch et al., 2014). Overuse of animals in veterinary colleges is a reality that should be regularly monitored by ethics committees. Development of skills through use of alternatives to live animals in teaching clinical examination and surgical practice are now an important part of animal welfare training (Capilé et al., 2015). Thus, veterinary educators have a responsibility for animal welfare and ethical practice in both veterinary training and practice.

Why Veterinarians Must Study Animal Welfare and Ethics

The first reason that veterinarians must study AWE is that all sentient beings have needs and interests in survival and wellbeing, a fact that grounds ethics in science (Harris, 2010). The development of veterinary medicine was originally based on the need to consider the physical welfare of animals in order to maximize their usefulness to humans (Bones and Yeates, 2012). This personal interest approach has become increasingly questioned. Through keeping animals as companions and through scientific studies, animals have been found to have a wide range of similar emotions to humans (Panksepp, 1998), including moral emotions such as empathy, which have an evolutionary basis through various animal species (de Waal, 2009). Furthermore, we are more and more recognizing that animals have capacities that humans do not (Ford, 1999). We no longer question whether animals deserve moral consideration (Sapontzis, 1987; Wise, 2002), and discussion is growing over how they should be treated (Rollin, 2006b). Thus, veterinarians need to be at the forefront of knowledge and research into animals’ capabilities and to develop the skills for moral action. A universal principles approach (see Box 28.3) is ethically necessary, and tolerance of a multitude of other, less inclusive approaches is unreasonable.

The second reason for studying AWE is community expectation, or the new social ethic (Rollin, 2006a) regarding animals. Public concern for animal welfare is burgeoning as the animal industries intensify and production volumes increase in many countries. In conjunction with greater trade in other commodities, the long-distance trade in live animals is growing rapidly. The traditional curriculum for veterinarians, focused on basic and clinical sciences, animal handling and husbandry, diagnostics and surgery, is changing to incorporate areas of competence that will address the public concern for AWE.

The third reason is that veterinarians and veterinary students are indicating that they need it. In the UK study that identified regular exposure to moral distress in veterinary practice, 78% of respondents felt that they were not given enough (or in many cases any) ethics tuition during their training (Batchelor and McKeegan, 2012). In a study of Australian first- and fifth-year veterinary students (Verrinder and Phillips, 2014b), 96% agreed that they should be involved in the wider social issues of animal protection, 94% that the veterinary profession should be involved in addressing animal ethics issues, but only 33% considered that the veterinary profession was sufficiently involved. Also, 71% were morally motivated to put animals’ interests over the interests of their owners/carers, although those in the fifth year were less strongly in agreement than first-year students.

What Is Happening in Animal Welfare and Ethics Teaching in Veterinary Science?

There is regional variation in the extent of the transition from the traditional curriculum to one that develops competencies in animal welfare and ethics. A European study identified a greater emphasis on such training in the northwest of the continent, in particular involving more interactive teaching (Illmann et al., 2014). These courses are better held before the extramural placements, so that students are better able to detect welfare problems on farms (Kerr, Mullan, and Main, 2013). There is also a growing focus on animal welfare assessment and animal law. Most students agree that AWE courses enable them to identify and deal with ethical dilemmas more effectively (Abood and Siegford, 2012). The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons’ Day One Competences 2014 include understanding the ethical and legal responsibilities of the veterinary surgeon in relation to patients, clients, society, and the environment; the ethical framework within which veterinary surgeons should work; and ethical theories that inform decision-making in professional and animal welfare-related ethics (RCVS, 2016). Veterinary medical education is increasingly providing training in nontechnical competence (Dolby and Litster, 2015), but the various aspects of animal welfare are not universally addressed in veterinary teaching. Graduating veterinarians are almost all good at understanding and treating the physical welfare issues, including infectious disease treatment and prevention, but psychological welfare issues are less well understood (Koch, 2009). However, a comprehensive understanding of all aspects of AWE gives students confidence in tackling animal welfare issues (Wu et al., 2015). Veterinary students have shown more concerned attitudes for animals used for profit or regarded as pests following animal welfare courses (Hazel, Signal, and Taylor, 2011).

Ethics teaching in veterinary courses is relatively new, but is growing internationally, albeit with considerable variation in what is taught, and how, and little consistency in ethics competencies (Magalhães-Sant’Ana et al., 2009, 2010; Morton, 2010). In many disciplines, including veterinary science, professional ethics teaching aims to develop ethical behavior toward people. However, the extent to which veterinary courses develop ethical behavior toward animals is unknown, despite this being central to the veterinary role. A major obstacle to the achievement of leadership in the veterinary profession addressing animal ethics issues is the reliance on a range of existing cultural perspectives on how animals should be treated (descriptive ethics), rather than universal principles (normative ethics). Consequently, students may finish veterinary school with a view that ethical decisions are based on personal choice, and that ethics is about tolerance of a range of conflicting perspectives. This provides little possibility for ethical direction and confidence in ethical decision-making. As well, “morality requires by definition the investment of knowledge in action” (Blasi, 1983, p. 205). Therefore, we advocate a more scientific approach to ethics teaching that includes the development of ethical behavior toward animals.

A Scientific Approach to Teaching Ethics

Ethical behavior has been identified as having four components – moral sensitivity, moral judgment, moral motivation, and moral character (see Box 28.2) – all of which can be developed through education (Rest, 1994). (The terms “ethical” and “moral” are often used interchangeably, as they are in this chapter.)

Ethics programs often emphasize just one of these components, moral judgment development to address ethical dilemmas. A number of moral judgment tests in relation to human ethics issues have been devised, including the frequently used Defining Issues Test (DIT; Rest et al., 1999), a quantitative measure to determine the extent to which students use three moral reasoning schemas (Box 28.3). The DIT involves students choosing their preferred action, and then rating twelve considerations based on which are important when making a decision on a specific human ethics issue (such as stealing to feed one’s family during a famine) and ranking the four that are most important. These rankings are used to quantify to what extent students rely on PI, MN, and UP reasoning (see Box 28.3). Education has been identified as one of the main predictors of moral judgment growth, particularly liberal arts programs. However, professional education programs do not appear to promote moral judgment unless the program includes a well-validated ethics curriculum (Bebeau and Monson, 2008). Assessed by Rest’s DIT based on human ethics issues, veterinary practitioners have shown a large variation in moral reasoning abilities, no different from that of the general public despite having a professional degree, and these abilities did not improve with experience (Batchelor, Creed, and McKeegan, 2015). However, until recently there has been no measure of moral reasoning in relation to the animal ethics issues faced by veterinarians.

In 2012, we developed a Veterinary Defining Issues Test (VetDIT; Verrinder and Phillips, 2014a) with three animal ethics scenarios involving companion, farm, and research animal ethics issues common to veterinary practice. Results of this test suggest that veterinary students of both animal- and nonanimal-related professions prioritize UP reasoning more, and PI reasoning less, on animal than on human ethics issues, and that MN reasoning is prioritized equally on animal and human issues (Verrinder, Ostini, and Phillips, 2016a).

Although moral judgment is a critical foundation for moral behavior because it produces moral meaning for an intended action (Bredemeier and Shields, 1994), the strength of association between moral judgment and action is low (Thoma, 1994). Thus, development of the other three components of moral behavior is also essential. Without the ability to recognize and interpret issues ethically (ethical sensitivity), it is unlikely that a person will engage in moral decision-making. Practice-specific tests have been created to assess ethical sensitivity in other professions, such as dentistry (Bebeau, Rest, and Yamoor, 1985) and life sciences (Clarkeburn, Downie, and Matthew, 2002). Recently, an ethical sensitivity measure for veterinarians using a written response and video-recorded role play demonstrated that students had increased capacity to identify elements of ethical sensitivity after instruction (Verrinder, Ostini and Phillips, 2016b). Moral motivation and moral character have been measured in other professions, but not so far in veterinary education. Table 28.1 provides samples of research on the four components of moral behavior.

Table 28.1 Research on the components of moral behavior

Component of moral behavior Publication type Synopsis
Moral sensitivity Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Moral Education, Cambridge, MA Review of 37 studies in which 23 measures to assess ethical sensitivity were described in dentistry, medicine, nursing, counseling, business, science, and school settings. Identified several well-validated measures showing that sensitivity can be influenced by educational interventions, and in some cases females demonstrated small but significantly higher levels of ethical sensitivity (You and Bebeau, 2005).
Ethical sensitivity Journal article (submitted) Reports results of animal ethics sensitivity tools in which third-year veterinary students increased ethical sensitivity scores in a written test following instruction (Verrinder, Ostini, and Phillips, 2016b).
Moral judgment Journal article Reviews 33 moral judgment studies (6600 respondents) in medicine, dentistry, law, and veterinary medicine, confirming that professional school education programs do not promote moral judgment development unless the program includes a well-validated ethics curriculum. Reviews effects of ethics teaching interventions and identifies significant benefits in law, nursing, and dentistry studies (Bebeau, 2002).
Moral judgment Journal article A longitudinal DIT study concluded that to facilitate moral development, opportunities for students to consider issues of fairness from less egocentric perspectives that serve the public good are required (Mayhew, Seifert, and Pascarella, 2010).
Moral judgment Journal article Results of three professional responsibility courses for law students showed small, moderate, and large gains in principled reasoning, as measured by the DIT (Hartwell, 2004).
Moral judgment Journal article Results of three variations of ethics course design and two comparison groups over a five-year period showed gains in principled reasoning scores equivalent to four to six years of formal education by teaching formal logic, development theory and stage typology, philosophical methods of ethical analysis, and application of methods to social issues. Peer discussion of moral issues was found to be less effective, as were general courses in the humanities and the political/social sciences (Penn, 1990).
Moral judgment Journal article A three-hour interactive workshop increased students’ principled reasoning as determined by the VetDIT, whereas the same content presented in a lecture format did not. Growth in Universal Principles reasoning on animal ethics issues, similar to that achieved by Penn (1990) and McNeel (1994) using the DIT human ethics issues, suggests that direct teaching of moral development theory, and practice using principled reasoning, are effective (Verrinder and Phillips, 2016a).
Moral motivation Book chapter The Professional Role Orientation Inventory differentiates beginning and advanced students’ role concept and is sensitive to the effects of instruction. Students at higher stages of professional moral identity (about 37% of students) were more likely to incorporate issues of access to care, serving medical assistance patients, and volunteering to help those in need as key expectations of self (Bebeau and Monson, 2008).
Moral action Book chapter In dental ethics education, students take on the role of a professional and analyze their responsibilities in complex situations, developing action plans and dialogs that are critiqued for professional effectiveness. This practice builds confidence in taking action (Bebeau, 1994).

Notes: DIT = Defining Issues Test; VetDIT = Veterinary Defining Issues Test.

Veterinary Students’ Ethical Motivations

Australian veterinary students have indicated that their two main motivations for choosing to study veterinary science are “enjoyment in working with animals” and “wanting to help sick and injured animals.” “Wanting to improve the way animals are treated” was the third most common motivation for more than one-third of students (Verrinder and Phillips, 2014b). Their past experience with animals, especially pets, is a major driver of this interest (Furnham and Pinder, 1990; Driscoll, 1992; Furnham and Heyes, 1993; Serpell, 2005). However, students’ interest in AWE differs during their course. In English veterinary students, Paul and Podberscek (2000) observed less empathy toward animals in male students in the later years of their course, and this was confirmed for all students, not just males, in an Australian study (Pollard-Williams, Doyle, and Freire, 2014). Aligned with this evidence, Ling et al. (2016) found that as Asian veterinary students progressed through their course, there was greater acceptance of killing young, dependent animals and reduced concern about transporting animals from a developed to a developing country. There was also greater rejection of using animals that died naturally for products, which probably reflects a more advanced understanding of the risks of acquiring zoonoses. Such differences in ethical sensitivity and motivation suggest the need for a greater emphasis on animal welfare and ethics teaching and assessment.

Teaching Animal Welfare and Ethics

Animal welfare and ethics should initially be taught as a stand-alone course in the first year. Although it may be integrated into other relevant teaching, in particular animal behavior or husbandry, the latter often focuses on farm animals, and it is important that animal welfare teaching addresses all types of animals, including companion, zoo, wild, and sport animals. There is also a danger if animal welfare is subsumed within a husbandry course that the major AWE concerns will be seen to have to acquiesce to the demands of modern husbandry systems for financial sustainability through high stocking rates, close confinement, limited pain relief, and so on. If AWE is taught as a separate course, it allows students opportunities to focus on the animals’ welfare state without these constraints.

In the middle stages of the course, students’ learning about animal husbandry, welfare, and ethics should be brought together into a systems-oriented course, which will include considerations of animal management economics. Student-centered learning is appropriate for an integrated course of this nature, with debates, workshops, and discussion, guided by an ethical approach. An ethical approach applies complementary universal ethical frameworks and principles to enable students to make the most fitting ethical decisions. Ideally, all teachers in the faculty will use the same ethical approach for a unified moral climate. This may require working with faculty to ensure a common understanding of this universal approach to using ethics concepts and frameworks.

Key Animal Welfare Concepts and Measures

It is important that veterinary students understand key concepts such as the five freedoms and other broader concepts of welfare, including the five domains (Mellor and Beausoleil, 2015) and animals’ needs and capabilities (Nussbaum, 2001). Veterinary students also need to know the principles of and some methods of measuring animal welfare, especially those principles based on behavior, physiology, and animal production and product quality. It is particularly important that students understand the connections between good animal welfare and animal output. There are several online packages to assist in the teaching of AWE in veterinary schools, most notably the Concepts in Animal Welfare course produced by World Animal Protection (WSPA, 2003). Students should also be aware of the development and use of the Welfare Quality® Protocol (e.g., Gieseke et al., 2014). Veterinary students should understand the complexity of the human–animal bond, as well as the diverse ways in which animals interact with humans, both advantageous and disadvantageous. They must recognize the correct way to move animals, using low-stress animal management techniques.

Animal Welfare Legislation

Animal welfare law is a rapidly developing subject, which forms the focus for whole courses in some veterinary schools (Whittaker, 2014). Such courses tend to be broad and multidisciplinary, including not just law but philosophy, economics, and animal welfare science. Regulatory frameworks can be described for the major animal groups; that is, companion, farm, wild (native and introduced), and animals in research and teaching. Given that veterinary students may practice outside their home countries, some international law comparisons should be included. The growing role of international organizations, in particular the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the World Trade Organization, should be acknowledged, as well as the role that the OIE plays in setting standards internationally.

Animal Ethics Concepts

Understanding the differences between animal welfare, animal ethics, and professional ethics, and between different approaches to animal ethics, is important (see Box 4). Based on moral philosophy and moral psychology, we take a normative approach to ethics teaching founded on universal principles and the complementarity of the main ethics frameworks; that is, deontological, utilitarian, virtue, and care ethics. The aim is to develop the capacity for ethical behavior toward both nonhuman and human animals.

Oct 15, 2017 | Posted by in GENERAL | Comments Off on Ethics and Animal Welfare

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