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Decision making
Comments on the dilemma in the March issue: ‘Genetic testing for coat colour in cats’
  1. Siobhan Mullan

Abstract

The dilemma in the March issue concerned whether it was ethically acceptable for genetic testing to be carried out to determine coat colour in cats (In Practice, March 2012, volume 34, pages 174–175). Sean Wensley noted that some people were uncomfortable with the use of genetic testing to select for aesthetic preferences, but that, in effect, it merely accelerated the process of selective breeding to comply with phenotypic requirements, which had been carried out for many years. Just because someone selected for aesthetics did not mean that they would be unable to provide positive welfare outcomes for the animal. In fact, it could also be argued that selecting for phenotype would mean that those who were tempted to disregard kittens that did not meet their approval would euthanase fewer animals. On the other hand, the cat genome had been sequenced to facilitate research into inherited diseases – not for the purpose of selecting for aesthetics. Selective breeding had also been linked to welfare problems in some companion species, including cats. Selecting for coat colour would be less ethically justifiable if it was found to be associated with deleterious mutations, and it might distract breeders from health testing. Diagnostic laboratories could help by using market strategies to raise awareness of the availability of DNA tests to screen for diseases.

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Siobhan Mullan works part-time in small animal practice, as well as at the University of Bristol. She holds the RCVS diploma in animal welfare science, ethics and law.

Siobhan Mullan comments: Sean Wensley referred to a ‘shifting moral climate’ where the quality of life of pets is increasingly favoured over appearance. One example of this is the disqualification of the winners of six of the 15 high-profile breeds at Crufts from progressing through the competition following veterinary health checks. While critics may argue that this is only a small step, it is an important one, and one of many small steps that will undoubtedly make it impossible to return to previous bad practices of pedigree breeding.

However, I'm not exactly sure what these steps are aiming for. What is the utopian vision for pet breeding? Those who hold animal rights-based views would see no place at all for human involvement in pet breeding, it being wrong to exert control over creatures who are themselves ‘subjects-of-a-life’. For others, utopia would be a situation where ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ occurred. As it seems to me that there is no intrinsic worth in having breeds, per se, the question would then come down to the usual animal use equation: weighing up human enjoyment against animal harms. It would be possible to align these two elements in a win-win situation if the human enjoyment was derived from breeding healthy animals with a good quality of life that retained their telos (essential characteristics, often thought of as ‘the dogginess of the dog’, ‘cattiness of the cat’, and so on). Appearance could be a secondary, or non-important, characteristic. However, we would need many more steps to get there.

Have you faced a dilemma that you would like considered in a future instalment of Everyday Ethics? If so, e-mail a brief outline to inpractice{at}bva-edit.co.uk. We pay a small honorarium for contributions that are published.

Notes

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, ‘Repeat vaccinations’, is presented and discussed by David Williams. 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 ‘Genetic testing for coat colour in cats’, which was published in the March issue of In Practice, appears on page 247.

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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