23 June 2016 – Have the demands placed on animals for companionship, production and traction pushed them towards their biological limits? How much further is it acceptable to push them? Yesterday, this ethical dilemma was debated at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) at CABI-RVC’s 5th symposium on animal welfare.

The speakers covered a range of current issues faced by veterinarians, farmers and pet owners. Becky Whay, from the University of Bristol, opened with a presentation on the position of working equids, like donkeys and horses, in developing countries. Their plight was inextricably connected with the grinding poverty of their owners. Working in difficult conditions, carrying heavy loads, the animals often work beyond their limits, and having to deal with lameness, heat stress, skin lesions and poor body condition. Their owners often have no choice about the high demands that they are placing on their animals, due to their own difficult lives. She said that, “as owners have the best insight into the welfare of their animals, their knowledge should be combined with science and research to reach a workable solution.”

RVC’s Rowena Packer dealt with the issue of how companion animals, particularly dogs, have been pushed to the limits by breeding for certain characteristics. Over time, the dogs have developed exaggerated or extreme versions of their original characteristics, often with negative consequences for their health and welfare. She highlighted this with the problems experienced by brachycephalic dog breeds, such as the Pug, Bulldog and French Bulldog, which are gaining in popularity. These ‘fashionable’ breeds, with a flattened face and short nose, often suffer with breathing, skin and eye problems. She said, “Owners often don’t recognise clinical signs such as breathing difficulties as a problem, but just as ‘normal’ for the breed.” She advocated the promotion of breeds with healthy body shapes and suggested that a line should be drawn when an extreme characteristic is no longer acceptable.

The ethics of advanced veterinary treatments in dogs and cats were explored by Manuel Magalhães-Sant’Ana, from the University of Porto. He asked if companion animal biotechnologies, such as bionic limbs, renal transplants and pet cloning are raising new ethical challenges that did not exist before. Advanced treatments involve more expertise and resources, are evolving at a faster pace than traditional ones and have the potential to raise the complexity of ethical issues involved. “When asking how far we should go in treating animals, there is a need to consider how appropriate the treatment is, what the motives are and whether benefits for the animal outweigh potential risks. Just because it is possible to make an animal live longer and better, it is not always appropriate to do so.”

Peter Down from the University of Nottingham considered welfare issues associated with increasing milk yield of dairy cows. He said that while there is some evidence of an association between milk yield and dairy cow health (e.g. mastitis, lameness), the incidence of most common diseases is stable and there is a complex association between milk yield/herd size and the health and welfare of the cow. With bigger herds, a different approach is needed to maintain the health and welfare of cows and there has been a shift from treatment of clinical disease to disease prevention.

In the final presentation, Peter Jinman, Chairman of the Farm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC) considered the need to improve the efficiency of animal production and sustainability to meet the demands of an increasing population, whilst maintaining good standards of animal health and welfare. The consideration of farm economics was paramount to bringing in improvements to welfare. Advances in agricultural technology have improved the monitoring of the health and well-being of livestock to ensure maximum production.

The meeting closed with a lively panel discussion chaired by Martin Whiting of RVC. Martin said, “That the event, CABI’s 5th Annual Symposium on Animal Welfare and Behaviour, reflected the importance that both CABI and RVC place on delivering information about health and welfare to the veterinary profession.”

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