Veterinarians are considered by society to be experts in animal health and the treatment and prevention of animal disease and are similarly regarded in matters of animal welfare. As such, veterinarians are expected to make judgements regarding the welfare of animals both in their care and beyond (Siegford, Cottee and Widowski, 2010). The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) recommends that veterinarians “should be the leading advocates for the welfare of all animals, recognizing the key contribution that animals make to human society through food production, companionship, biomedical research and education” (OIE, 2012). Additionally, the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe (FVE), together with the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) declare that “Veterinarians are, and must continually strive to be, the leading advocates for the good welfare of animals in a continually evolving society” (AVMA, 2014).
Professional and societal expectations confer a responsibility upon veterinarians to lead the way in promoting good animal welfare, and making ethical decisions for their animal patients, in often difficult situations. The specific decisions made by a veterinarian will vary depending on local legislative requirements, drug and equipment availability, and cultural expectations; a global understanding of the role of the veterinary practitioner in promoting animal welfare is fundamental for advancing companion animal health and welfare around the world.
So, what is animal welfare? While there currently is no universally accepted definition, for the purpose of this document we will define it as follows:
“Animal welfare is the physical and psychological, social
and environmental well-being of animals”
Veterinary professionals are expected to provide not only for physical health, but also the non-physical aspects of animal welfare that allow for the psychological, social and environmental well-being of their patients. And veterinarians must do so in the face of a diverse socio-economic, cultural, technological, and educational world.
Companion animal practice is a rapidly growing and increasingly important segment of the global veterinary profession, with the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) itself representing more than 200,000 individual veterinarians belonging to over 100 associations (WSAVA, 2018). The benefits of leading companion animal practitioners to a better understanding of, and practice in animal welfare are many, and include increased professional satisfaction, enhanced client perceptions and improved compliance, safety and benefits to individuals and communities.
A good understanding of how to provide for the pet’s welfare also provides a means of building trust with animal owners. Studies have shown that owners whose pets are considered “part of the family” are more responsive to veterinary recommendations, as are those who have an established pet-owner-veterinary bond (Lue, Pantenburg and Crawford, 2008). A recent survey revealed that clients of veterinarians who discussed with them the value of human-animal connections were up to 77% more likely to follow the veterinary recommendations, come for wellness appointments and purchase pet insurance (HABRI, 2016). Overall, this can allow for better patient care, improve professional satisfaction for the veterinarian and the veterinary team, and result in healthier animals and happier pet-owning individuals or families.
Multiple human health studies have provided scientific evidence that pets can influence human physical and emotional health, minimise depression, and improve social interactions amongst people (Takashima and Day, 2014). Evidence was so compelling in relation to cardiovascular disease (CVD) that, in 2013, the American Heart Association issued the statement that “pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, may be reasonable for reduction in CVD risk” (Levine et al., 2013). These and other studies help underline the importance of pets in people’s lives and how pet-owner relationships can influence human health.
The evidence for a mutually beneficial relationship between humans and their pets continues to mount, and the need for universally accepted guidelines for companion animal welfare has been identified. As a global veterinary association, WSAVA is ideally placed to introduce these animal welfare guidelines, designed to be utilised by all companion animal veterinarians no matter in what geographical region they practice.
These guidelines are intended to assist companion animal veterinarians throughout the world in their understanding of contemporary animal welfare concepts and science, and provide guidance on addressing potential animal welfare problems, navigating some more common ethical issues, and promoting good animal welfare through effective communication, both within the veterinary clinic and beyond.