You own a successful small animal practice and have a good relationship with your clients. You are also keen to do what you can to promote all aspects of animal welfare. Your knowledge of farm animal welfare issues leads you to reject certain animal-derived products when buying for yourself. Is it morally or professionally ethical for you to provide literature sympathetic to your viewpoint about farm animal welfare issues in your waiting room?
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Paul Roger is a past-president of the Sheep Veterinary Society. After 25 years in general practice, he established a referral practice and consultancy service in farm animal health and production, based in Reeth, North Yorkshire. He has a particular interest in sheep and their welfare, and holds the RCVS diploma in sheep health and production and the certificate in animal welfare science, ethics and law.
Issues to consider
The practice owner may make a judgement (or judgements) based on his or her perception of certain farming methods and the effects that they perceive these may have on the health and welfare of the animals involved.
Their views may relate to intensive farming, organic versus conventional methods, or produce from British livestock versus imported animal products.
It is quite proper for the practice owner to want to promote what they perceive to be beneficial practices. However, negative pressure should not be put on the alternative view, especially if there is no evidence to support the practice owner's prejudice. It would not make a convincing moral stance were the practice owner to do so.
From a professional standpoint, if the practitioner is a vet then one might argue that he or she has a duty to publicise their stance, provided that no misinformation is given and that the position is reviewed regularly. It would be difficult to object to a stance adopted with these safeguards in place.
There are already practices in the UK that highlight a particular interest and attract a client base because of the philosophy of their approach. For example, some centres practise alternative therapies, which are permissible if the vet using the techniques believes that they work. However, as the profession moves towards establishing evidence-based practice, there may be evidential gaps that need to be filled.
The development of these different approaches offers choice to the public and, provided that no evidence base is denigrated, it is permissible to hold and promote views that the clinician and/or practice have adopted. It is not permissible to infringe on individuals' clinical freedom, so vets employed by the practice must be made fully aware of the practice's approach to these areas.
Possible way forward
It may be useful to consider using an ethical framework, such as that reported by Webster (2011), to help inform your views on different farming methods. This enables you to view the interests of the relevant stakeholders in the light of desirable values, such as wellbeing, autonomy and justice. This type of analysis highlights areas of concern and helps to answer the question of how well different producers meet their duty of care to the animals they own.
The practice owner may also wish to look at the application of the Five Freedoms, which may help to clarify the extent to which the animals in a particular farming system are being provided for.
This wider ownership of welfare should be encouraged as it is only through commercial pressure that sustainable and lasting movement towards improving welfare standards is attained. Any discussion engendered in this area should be welcomed as it maintains the focus of the public on important animal welfare issues and raises dilemmas that need to be addressed through informed public debate.
Readers with views to contribute on ‘Promoting personal views in practice’ should e-mail them toso that they can be considered for publication in the next issue, or fax comments to 020 7383 6418. The deadline for receipt of comments is Friday, January 20. Please limit contributions to 200 words.
THIS series gives readers the opportunity to consider and contribute to discussion of some of the ethical dilemmas that can arise in veterinary practice. Each month, a case scenario is presented, followed by discussion of some of the issues involved. In addition, a possible way forward is suggested; however, there is rarely a cut-and-dried answer in such cases, and readers may wish to suggest an alternative approach. This month's dilemma, ‘Promoting personal views in practice’, is presented and discussed by Paul Roger. Readers with comments to contribute are invited to send them as soon as possible, so that they can be considered for publication in the next issue. Discussion of the dilemma ‘Owner access to isolation facility webcam images’, which was published in the November/December issue of In Practice, appears on page 55.
The series is being coordinated by Siobhan Mullan, of the University of Bristol. It is hoped it will provide a framework that will help practices find solutions when facing similar dilemmas.
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