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Vaccinations and the Animal Welfare Act
  1. Martin Whiting

Abstract

Articles in this series give 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, ‘Vaccinations and the Animal Welfare Act’, is presented and discussed by Martin Whiting. 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 ‘A corneal cat-astrophe?’, which was published in the January issue of In Practice, appears on page 103.

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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Martin Whiting graduated from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) in 2006. He also holds a degree in philosophy and an MA in medical law and ethics from King's College, London. Having spent time in general practice and studying for an internship, he returned to the RVC to teach ethics and law. He is currently undertaking a PhD in veterinary ethics and law.

You advise a local cat shelter on veterinary policies and have been encouraging routine vaccination. Yet, frustratingly, you keep meeting with resistance to vaccinating all cats against feline leukaemia virus (FeLV) because of the financial implications – despite the duty of care that the Animal Welfare Act 2006 imposes on cat owners. What are owners' legal and ethical obligations to helping their animals avoid contracting preventable diseases?

Issues to consider

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 imposed a new duty of care on owners of certain animals. Section 9 of the Act outlines the offence of a person who does not take ‘such steps as are reasonable in all the circumstances to ensure that the needs of an animal for which he is responsible are met to the extent required by good practice’. The five ‘needs’ of the animal are listed in the next subsection and it is the final one of these which could potentially apply in this scenario: ‘its need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease’.

While there are several clauses in the statement of offence and all have to be met, in essence the person must have acted (or failed to act) in a way that has directly led to the suffering of the protected animal. Moreover, the steps to preventing the animal's suffering would have been reasonable, considering all of the circumstances. Additionally there is a reference to what is ‘good practice’.

It is important to remember that legislation such as the Animal Welfare Act 2006 is written in an open-ended way. The broad meaning is stated, but the specific details are not. It is then left to the courts to decide upon what actions are reasonable, after considering the circumstances of the situation, and to what extent the needs of the animal have not been met. So how far does one's duty to protect an animal from disease extend? Does it include vaccinations? What exactly does the Act mean by good practice?

Possible way forward

To assist court decisions and to guide the animal owners, Defra has produced a series of ‘Codes of Practice’, covering different animals' under the Act. However, these codes are not prescriptive, since, for example, there can be no ‘perfect’ way to look after a cat. A breach of the code of practice does not constitute an offense, but the courts will refer to the Code and decide whether it has been followed when making a decision.

With regards to protecting an animal from pain, suffering, injury and disease, the code only outlines ways to detect if a cat may be experiencing any of these afflictions, then it simply advises owners to seek veterinary attention. It does not provide a list of diseases cats are susceptible to and the ways in which these could be prevented.

Therefore, the only words relating to vaccination in the code are, ‘[cats] need protection from serious infectious diseases, which can be provided by vaccination’ (Defra 2009). Yet, there are, of course, other ways in which cats can be protected from infectious disease. So while the Act does impose a duty of care on owners towards their animals, which includes protection from disease (and this applies to owners of cat shelters as much as it does to individual pet cat owners), neither the Act nor the relevant code of practice stipulates that vaccinations are mandatory, or that failing to vaccinate animals leaves an owner liable to having committed an offence.

As veterinarians bound by the RCVS Code of Professional Conduct, we should be doing our best to provide evidence-based veterinary medicine to the animals under our care. This means advising clients to use vaccinations of an efficacious nature on their animals when appropriate, to minimise the potential of each animal contracting a particular disease. Additionally, we should be giving advice on husbandry management that can also reduce the likelihood of animals contracting infectious disease. For instance, educating owners about preventing roaming and fighting or biosecurity.

In this scenario, the veterinarian is probably appropriately recommending the use of the vaccines but, as vaccination is not mandatory and the finances of the charity are limited, they could redirect their advice to prevent cat to cat transmission within the shelter. Then they could give the advice of vaccination or other methods of preventing transmission to the cats' new owners, where the chance of contracting the disease may be increased due to its meeting other cats.

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