The role of animal welfare in veterinary science education and research

It has been a while. My last blog post was in June. But rather than starting with an apology, I am going to take a page out of a friend’s book and begin with a thank you. Thank you for waiting for this blog post. Let’s start in a positive place together1.

It has been a busy second half of the year. Since June I have presented at three conferences: ISAE congress in Canada; ANZCVS Science Week in Australia; and the NZCAC conference in Auckland.

It has been busy, but fantastic! I have learnt a lot about myself and met many fun and interesting people along the way.

My PhD is progressing. I am in the final stages of data analysis and writing up. It is a little difficult to assess progress. My 3-year doctoral scholarship expires at the end of May and I aim to submit before the money runs out. But I am also allowing myself a little leeway. Stressing about deadlines is not conducive to meeting deadlines.

In the meantime, I have also been involved in animal welfare, behaviour, and ethics (AWBE) lecturing. It is my passion. I enjoy working with tertiary students. Teaching is in my blood. An academic career is the perfect fit for me because I love the combination of research and education. With this in mind, I sat down to read the book ‘How to be an academic’ by Inger Mewburn. In the first chapter she talks about writing a ‘mission statement’ for your career. This got me thinking about my own.

The areas I enjoy most are: animal welfare, behaviour, and ethics. It doesn’t feel like work when I am thrilled to teach students or to conduct research in these areas. So perhaps my mission statement is: ‘AWBE are necessary and important areas in veterinary and animal science education and research. My mission is to grow them to the point that they are integrated realities within these disciplines’. The wording needs work…

I have found my calling, and I am prepared to fight for it.

AWBE are also increasing in importance in veterinary and animal science. An academic career in these areas is not just a passion project for me, but it is also smart.

The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) released comprehensive Animal Welfare guidelines at the recent world congress in Singapore. That a worldwide veterinary association recognises the need to develop a document promoting it, clearly shows how vital animal welfare is to the veterinary profession.

My main PhD supervisor describes where animal welfare fits so beautifully. She uses The Five Domains Model of animal welfare assessment to show where veterinary and animal science contribute to, and fit within, animal welfare:

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Credit: Associate Professor Ngaio Beausoleil

This way of structuring veterinary and animal science as subjects within animal welfare is not only intuitive, but also aligns with the veterinarian’s ‘…special duty to protect animal welfare and alleviate animal suffering’ (VCNZ) and the profession’s role as ‘experts’ in animal welfare.

It is obvious that veterinary science makes up such a large section of the Health Domain. But it also makes up significant portions of other domains, thereby contributing significantly towards Overall Animal Welfare.

However, in the traditional model of veterinary science, animal welfare science occupies just a small portion. This is still largely reflected in current veterinary education and the veterinary profession:

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Credit: Associate Professor Ngaio Beausoleil

A holistic, overarching, structure of animal welfare science makes more sense than the limited ‘subject’ view above. How can veterinarians be animal welfare experts without The Five Domains holistic view?

For example, animal nutrition could be taught in the context of animal welfare, rather than animal welfare within animal nutrition. Poor nutrition is a leading cause of animal welfare compromise in production animals, and excessive feed intakes are causing an obesity epidemic in companion animal populations.

Small animal behavioural problems are a leading cause of relinquishment and so-called ‘convenience’ euthanasia. The welfare of these animals would benefit from targeted behavioural interventions with a focus on improved welfare – for both humans and animals.

Even within the Health Domain, the ‘key’ domain for veterinarians, there are issues. As animals are living longer, largely a result of better nutrition and improved preventative health care, veterinarians are forced to deal with diseases of ‘old age’ – hyperthyroidism, kidney disease, and arthritis in older cats are just a few examples. And there are issues associated with end-of-life decisions for these older animals. How do we differentiate between age-related decline and severely compromised welfare? And at what point do we draw the line and say that euthanasia is necessary?

Some of these questions relate to judgement calls, where we need to consider veterinary ethics. Understanding how others think, question, and decide, is vital to relating to them. The caring profession of veterinary science needs to make sure it cares enough to relate to people from a wide range of backgrounds and belief systems.

A solid grounding in animal welfare science, behaviour, and ethics will assist veterinarians and animal scientists in answering these questions and more.2

So yes, AWBE is the way of the future – for the veterinary profession, and for me.


1Here is a good explanation of the power of saying “thank you” instead of “sorry” when you do something wrong

2because I am sure there are, as yet undiscovered, questions that will need answering in the future




Rodeo in New Zealand

When I was about 7 years old and living in Whitianga (Coromandel Peninsula, North Island of New Zealand), my parents took my brother and I to the local rodeo event. It was a big day out for the (then) small town and the surrounding area. There were food stalls, craft markets, and bulls and stallions were being ridden. Teenagers could ride calves and young children could have a go at riding a ‘wild’ sheep. Rodeo events like this have been going on every year for decades. It is just what you do. The area has sheep and beef farms and rodeo is a natural accompaniment. Everyone got into the spirit of the day – fun and laughter followed. The champion stallion rider was venerated.

I rode a sheep that day. My parents (mostly mum – she is from a farming background) convinced me to give it a go. I remember it being fun. But I also remember asking my mum afterwards if she thought the sheep enjoyed it as well. That was the first and last rodeo event we attended.

Rodeo events are most popular in countries or regions with historical ties to rural agriculture. The USA is well-known for its rodeo – particularly in Southern States such as Texas, and the mid-west; ‘cowboy states’. Australia also has a penchant for rodeo.

In New Zealand, rodeo events are held up and down the country during the summer months. These events are advertised as ‘family friendly’ and an entertaining day out. Most are run by the New Zealand Rodeo Cowboys Association (NZRCA), which overseas 35 rodeos annually (Report to Accompany the code of welfare: Rodeos).

So, what is the problem?

Rodeo is unacceptable to a growing number of people. Anti-rodeo Facebook groups (e.g. Anti Rodeo Action NZ and New Zealand Anti-Rodeo Coalition) have a large number of followers. These groups host anti-rodeo demonstrations across New Zealand. Many of those who are opposed to rodeo cite animal welfare grounds – rodeo events are seen as “legalised animal cruelty” (SPCA New Zealand). It has been argued that the events at rodeos are unnecessary displays of ‘archaic’ stockperson skills. This includes: calf roping; horse and/or bull bucking; and steer wrestling.

“Is putting animals in a stressful situation like this justified? If you look at the cost benefit analysis, the benefit is sport for the participants and entertainment for a crowd. I don’t see that putting animals through this kind of fear and stress is justified by the benefits.”

(Virginia Williams, animal welfare consultant vet) [1]

Several groups publicly oppose rodeo events or aspects of them: SPCA New Zealand, the New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA), Lions Clubs New Zealand, and The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand (to name a few).

Researchers from The University of Queensland’s Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics and School of Agriculture and Food Sciences, along with those from Toulouse University, conducted a study on the effects of calf roping [2]. Their findings conclude that calf roping causes stress to the animals. However, only stress hormones and limited behavioural data were assessed. Detailed behavioural assessments may have been more informative – and potentially indicated extreme negative welfare states experienced by the calves. Interestingly, the study was funded by a rodeo body: the Australian Professional Rodeo Association (APRA).

The other side of rodeo

Other than the obvious entertainment value for people attending the events, and sporting value for the competitors, it could be argued that the animals used would not exist but for rodeo. It is also important to consider the animal’s entire life, not just the time it is performing, or entertaining. When not competing, many of these animals are lavishly fed and allowed to do as they please. If their whole life is ‘better’ in rodeo than it may otherwise be, this may change our assessment [1].

The Code of Welfare for Rodeos

The use of animals for entertainment purposes is ethically divisive. On one side are those who see it as ‘just a bit of fun’ or important to rural agriculture; on the other side are those who maintain that the use of animals for entertainment is abhorrent. Occupying the middle ground are those who support some aspects of rodeo and not others, and those whose issue is not with using animals for entertainment, but with the welfare consequences of this particular entertainment event on the animals involved.

“My contention is that at least some of the rodeo events are unreasonable and unnecessary and cause unreasonable and unnecessary pain and distress.” [1]

Suffice to say, rodeo is a contentious topic. For this reason, the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) received a large number of submissions when conducting their 10-yearly review of the Code of Welfare for Rodeos . The Code has expectations for appropriate treatment of animals used in rodeos and identifies what is inappropriate. NAWAC published a report to accompany The Code, which details the reasoning behind their recommendations and these differences of opinion. It is an interesting read and shows how truly divisive this topic is. I will summarise some of the key issues here:

  • Societal views on the use of animals in rodeos, i.e. is it ethical?
    • Limited relevance to NZ culture, e.g. outdated stockperson skills
    • Not good for NZ’s reputation as animal welfare leader and its ‘clean, green’ image
    • Calf events have been banned in a number of other countries
    • Little economic value to NZ
    • Positive role of rodeo in rural cohesion
  • Stockmanship – how do we assess animal welfare at rodeos?
    • Veterinarian should be present at rodeos – last say in all welfare decisions
    • Animal welfare officer to identify issues and work with veterinarian
  • The use of spurs on bucking animals – it is necessary?
    • Prohibition of spurs called for – their use causes pain to animals
    • Spurs provide a point of contact to remain on bucking animals – removing them would make it difficult for a contestant to remain seated
  • Specific events – calf welfare in rope and tie events
    • This event is believed to be particularly stressful
    • But in the few studies performed (at the date of report), ‘detrimental physiological damage’ was not reported
    • Not all NAWAC members could agree that the event should be discontinued – there was not enough evidence for significant pain and distress
    • The Code has ‘Recommended Best Practice’ to not use calves in rodeo events
  • Children’s events
    • Effect on children exposed to ‘disrespectful’ animal treatment – animal abuse linked to abuse of people
    • Rodeos are family-orientated – children involved as part of family unit
    • Sheep disallowed for this purpose – too small to handle being ridden
  • Health, injury, and disease – should fireworks be used?
    • Add interest to the event
    • Unexpected noise and movement causes fight or flight response in horses and cattle
    • Fireworks, pyrotechnics and gas fired explosions not to be used at rodeos

The Code itself is a longer read (28 pages). It also references the NZ Rodeo Association on page 7:

“The New Zealand Rodeo Association holds a number of training days for new contestants and for those wishing to learn more about rodeo events.”

This makes the reader nervous about the potential for bias and collusion. A legal document has a responsibility to be impartial and exclude vested interests. The Code is seen by some “as a shield to protect a defendant in the face of prosecution”. It may well be less than 10 years before it is updated to reflect ethical concerns.

In summary

Society’s expectations of animal welfare standards are constantly evolving – practices that were once acceptable no longer are or may become unacceptable in the future. Therefore, it is vital that we continue to discuss and debate these issues and respond to public concerns.

  1. Flagler, B., Blazing saddles, in VetScript. 2016.
  2. Sinclair, M., et al., Behavioral and Physiological Responses of Calves to Marshalling and Roping in a Simulated Rodeo Event. Animals, 2016. 6(5).

Reflecting on ANZCVS Science Week 2017

I have already written a blog post about the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists (ANZCVS) Membership exams. The oral examinations (membership & fellowship) are sat by candidates each year on the Gold Coast in Australia. After the exams, there is a conference to complete the veterinary ‘Science Week’. Each chapter within the college has its own stream of presentations. Veterinarians and scientists are invited to attend and present.

I was fortunate enough to be asked to present to the welfare chapter this year. The theme was ‘One Welfare – key drivers and new technologies’. The One Welfare concept is like that of One Health; interdisciplinary collaboration and solutions are important. #OneWelfare recognises the interconnections between animal and human wellbeing and the environment. Here I will summarise the presentations in the animal welfare chapter.

My lanyard

The first two speakers were asked to provide updates after attending conferences. Amy Little from the Australian Government spoke to us about the OIE global conference in Mexico, while Anne Fawcett of Small Animal Talk regaled us with stories of different coloured glitter in the faeces of polar bears in Canada – something she saw while attending the inaugural international One Welfare conference. Anne also emphasised the need to remember the conservation focus of One Welfare. For them to be truly interdisciplinary, ecologists and geographers should be invited to speak at these conferences. She also reminded us of the One Welfare portal and showed us how the Chatterbox tool can be used in teaching: to explore ethical questions.

My presentation was on the first day within the ‘companion animal’ section. It was based on my PhD project that explores end-of-life decision-making in owners of older and chronically ill cats and their vets. I was excited to present my research and preliminary findings to vets, animal welfare scientists, and others in attendance. Mags Awad (of PetSure, formerly with RSPCA Australia) also gave an excellent presentation on shelter welfare assessment and how it relates to One Welfare. Mags spoke about the ‘No Kill’ shelter movement and what it means for animals. There is the potential for animals to be kept alive when their welfare is compromised (e.g. with severe behavioural/anxiety issues). She spoke about the ‘Drives for Lives’ project, where animals are moved from an area in a state where there is an oversupply of animals to one where more are needed for adoption. Mags reminded us that the shelter environment is novel for many animals and that there is a need to remove fear and anxiety. Improving cat housing in shelters has the greatest impact on their wellbeing.

In the afternoon, Nat Waran from EIT in the Hawkes Bay told us what One Welfare means to her. If the people in developing countries are not enjoying good welfare, then how can we/they focus on companion animal welfare? She emphasised the need to make animal welfare relevant to people that may not be thinking about it. Becky Murphy from Dogs NZ (formerly The New Zealand Kennel Club) completed the companion animal section by talking about ethical breeding standards. Becky has the difficult task of working as the canine health and welfare officer for an organisation in the spotlight for (un)ethical breeding standards. The 2008 ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed’ exposé and the 2010 Bateson Report rocked the pedigree dog world by emphasising how selective breeding has changed the shape of breeds: features are exaggerated to the point of threatening health and welfare. The National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC)’s report on animal welfare issues associated with selective breeding has also drawn attention to issues with breeding standards. Unfortunately, brachycephalic dog ownership is still on the rise in New Zealand. And a brachycephalic breed sold online will fetch three to four times as much as a Labrador puppy. But Becky wants us to be clear with our terminology. A ‘pedigree’ dog is one with a three-generation pedigree from the Kennel Club, while ‘purebred’ can mean the same thing, but is often used to refer to ‘backyard’ bred unregistered dogs with no pedigree. The problem is that referring to issues in ‘purebred dogs’, without being specific about which animals we are talking about, results in purebred breeding problems becoming pedigree problems. The blame is then lumped onto organisations such as the Kennel Club who have no control over unregistered breeders. This then results in extreme defensiveness and backlash from these groups who feel like they are being vilified. Becky admits that breed standards need to be updated to discourage extremes and the good news is that the bulldog breed standard is currently being reviewed in New Zealand.

Virginia Williams, representing MPI, spoke about the regulatory framework for animals in research and how it has been progressed. The definition of ‘manipulation’ has been broadened to include killing an animal for research, testing, and teaching. Genetically modified animals have also been incorporated.

Day 2 – Production & Food animal species

Day two began with the pork industry – Kirsty Chidgey from Massey University gave an overview of the New Zealand perspective with a focus on farrowing systems. While gestation stalls have been phased out, crates are still being used for parturition and lactation. Farrowing crates are in the best interests of piglet welfare as they reduce crushing injuries, but are detrimental to the sow’s behavioural wellbeing. Kirsty investigated alternative systems for her doctoral studies and gave us a run-down of the use of pens at different stages of parturition and lactation. Kate Plush from SunPork Solutions summarised the two periods of compromised welfare for sows in farrowing crates: during nest-building and parturition, and in late lactation when no respite from piglets is provided. The dairy industry was next, with presentations from Jess Spatz Shelgren of Fonterra, Suzanne Dowling of AgResearch, and Cameron Clark from The University of Sydney. Andrew Fisher from The University of Melbourne Animal Welfare Science Centre concluded with an overview of welfare assessment toolkits. Paul Hardy-Smith from Panaquatic Health Solutions took us through quality and welfare aspects of how we kill fish. The poultry industry was represented by talks from Kate Hartcher from RSPCA Australia and Kerry Mulqueen who provides technical advice to the NZ poultry industry.

Day 3 – A busy day of welfare

Day three was jam-packed with talks ranging from ‘What’s really happening down on the farm?’ by Nita Harding from DairyNZ, to hoarding issues presented by Rosemary Elliott from Sentient. Nita spoke about farm monitoring; why it is necessary, how it is done, what is being found out, and how the information is being used. Kate Blaszak from WAP spoke about advocacy in animal welfare driving change. Virginia Williams spoke again for MPI about the factors underlying animal welfare offending. She gave a candid account of the types of offenders presented to MPI with some case studies. Nat Waran from Napier spoke again about One Welfare and Veterinary Education. There is a reluctance to get rid of old topics in veterinary curricula and replace them with new topics – particularly animal welfare. It takes a passion for subjects to drive them into the curriculum. There is very little integration and applied relevance with animal welfare teaching. She spoke about the difference between welfare and ethics and the need to take the ethical part ‘out of it’. “Welfare is about the subjective experience of the animal, while ethics is about what we think about the animal’s situation based on our own morals/viewpoint”. Jen Jamieson from MPI concluded the talks for the animal welfare chapter with a brilliant discussion of her PhD research. She looked at how human behaviour changes starts with schools – by exploring adolescent views of farm animal welfare. They are the next generation of animal consumers and so their views matter. I highly recommend you check out the YouTube recording of her talk given at the First International Conference on Human Behaviour Change for Animal Welfare here.

What did I learn from Science Week?

Too much to mention! I thoroughly enjoyed my time and having the chance to learn from so many interesting people. The awards dinner on the final night was truly inspiring. I enjoyed hearing about peoples’ achievements and everything they were doing in their various fields of veterinary science. The most important take-home is a reconfirmation that animal welfare is what drives me. I am re-invigorated to study for the membership examination next year.

***I would like to thank Massey University’s Institute of Veterinary, Animal, and Biomedical Sciences (Postgraduate) for generously sponsoring my attendance at Science Week this year***

Exploring end-of-life management of old and chronically ill cats

My second study towards my PhD is well under way. The recruitment phase started on social media (Facebook and Twitter) with a call for cat owners to participate. Interested cat owners who have put down their cat in the last 6 months are redirected to an online survey which takes them through a few quick questions. These are to help us interview the right people.

We want to make sure we are interviewing cat owners who recently euthanased their pet. If it was too long ago then the vet involved may not remember enough details for their (separate) interview. The cat owners, and their vet, must also be in New Zealand. The interviews are done in person so I need to be able to visit them. We are also asking owners to tell us why the cat was put down. If it was due to a disease that lasted a long time, or because the cat was older, then we might get more information about tricky decisions that were made. On the other hand, a cat that was put down because it was involved in an accident would probably provide much less information. The owners also need to give us permission to contact their vet for interview and leave us enough information to contact them.

We have also had a write-up about the study in VetScript – the magazine for The New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA). An email has also gone out to all NZVA members. Massey University has got on board with an article on their website and the study has been shared through their social media channels. These various initiatives are helping get the word out about the importance of the study and how to participate.

Why am I doing the study?

The research seeks to uncover how the owners of older cats or cats with chronic disease perceive the role their vets have played in the euthanasia process, before comparing this to the vet’s own understanding of their involvement. We are also looking at the decision-making process and how cat owners, and their vets, are making euthanasia decisions. This improved understanding of what drives owner behaviour would safeguard older cat welfare and further inform vets of their role in end-of-life management.

How can you get involved?

If you are a cat owner who meets our criteria, or you know someone that might, please take the time to visit our online recruitment page and answer a few questions. This should only take 5-10 minutes of your time.

If you are a veterinarian and you think you might have a client that would be happy to chat to me then please direct them to our online recruitment page.

If anyone has questions about the study they can get in touch with me at: