As any of my blog's regular readers well know, animal welfare is a hot topic in veterinary medicine. Over the past ten or twenty years, the U.S. veterinary establishment has been assailed from within and without over its lukewarm stance on animal welfare. Consequently, it has moved steadily, if ploddingly, towards the adoption of welfare standards that both the American populace and an increasing percentage of veterinarians believe a humane society requires on behalf of its animals.
You'd think welfare would've always held top billing in vet medicine, but an agrarian culture with deeply ingrained beliefs on animal use will hold fast to its ideals. And since modern veterinary medicine was founded within a completely agricultural context, it's not hard to see how veterinary professionals might react sluggishly to the shifting sand of public demand.
Then there's the inward veterinary pressure to consider. Now that an overwhelming majority of the profession has migrated towards companion animal medicine, animal welfare considerations within vet medicine have become a blistering topic within our ranks. Though the volume has been relatively muted thus far, the writing's on the wall for more contentious confrontations to come.
What we have here now is a tale of two professions –– one whose deepening divisions on everything from basic quality of husbandry to fundamental perceptions of animal suffering mean the rift is widening. After all, it's tough to compare a profession that considers spinal surgery for congenital malformations to one that culls (kills) hundreds of thousands of individuals during an infectious disease outbreak. They are simply two different animals.
And yet all veterinarians, big or small, abide by one oath; an oath by which we pledge to serve animals and their health. By doing so, we serve human health as well; hence, the exalted oath that's lasted for decades.
Problem is, the oath I recited at my vet school graduation never even mentioned animal welfare. Alleviating suffering was addressed, but the veterinary role in advancing welfare seems by today's standards to have been almost pointedly omitted.
Which is perhaps why the American Veterinary Medical Association took the advice of its Animal Welfare Committee and adopted new language for the "Veterinarian's Oath." Here's the revised verbiage all graduates will from now on recite on graduation day:
Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.
- Note: The italics are mine by way of illustrating the deviation from previous versions.
For some (myself included), the change is long overdue. Yet as innocuous as the addition of a simple word might seem, for those who labor within the agricultural sector of our profession such a shift may sound a death knell for their current way of life.
Look forward to regulation, repudiation, rectification, and resentment, too, if you're one of the people whose welfare policies and procedures are now on the chopping block.
Dr. Patty Khuly