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