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Rodents' rights: patients or pet food?
  1. Isobel Richards

Abstract

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, ‘Rodents’ rights: patients or provisions?', was submitted by a reader and is discussed by Isobel Richards. 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 ‘Vaccinations and the Animal Welfare Act’, which was published in the February issue of In Practice, appears on page 159.

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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Isobel Richards qualified from the University of Cambridge in 2006 and then spent five years working in small animal practice. She is currently a lecturer in animal management at Moulton College.

You see an increasing number of reptiles in your practice and have begun to wonder about the source of their food, which is primarily rodents. Do you think it is ethical to breed some animals only for them to be killed to feed to pets?

Issues to consider

One issue to be clarified is whether or not we should be concerned about the ethics of rodent production at all, unless we are specifically asked to visit a rodent breeding facility. If we see reptiles in small animal practice, the rodents they eat are not under our care. However, we may be benefitting indirectly from their use if the reptiles that rely on them are generating business for our practice. It can also be argued that the general public expects the veterinary profession collectively to take an interest in all aspects of animal use, with the aim of reducing suffering.

One way veterinary ethical dilemmas can be approached is in a broadly utilitarian (greatest good) manner, along with perhaps certain overriding fixed ‘rules’, such as that human safety is more important than animal safety, for example, or that, as vets, animal welfare should be our main priority.

Do the benefits of using rodents as food outweigh the harm? The main harm involved in this case would be the killing of large numbers of animals, and the potential suffering experienced by those animals if their husbandry or the slaughter method is suboptimal. So what benefits might outweigh the harm? Various individuals or businesses, possibly including veterinary practices, will benefit financially. Reptiles such as snakes require whole prey and, in the interests of their health and welfare, we have to advise that they are fed a suitable diet.

However, is it necessary to keep reptiles at all? If the reptiles are kept for conservation purposes, then it could be argued that there is a significant benefit, to people and to the biosphere and, depending on your viewpoint, this might justify the use of rodent food.

In small animal general practice it is more likely that pet reptiles will be encountered. While many owners derive great enjoyment from their reptile pets, human entertainment is often seen as an inadequate justification for animal suffering in contexts such as circuses and for sport. On the other hand, many rodents are routinely killed to control vermin in premises, which are maintained for the comfort of humans.

Considerable research has been conducted on the benefits to humans of interacting with animals; however, the focus has generally been on mammals, so the potential benefits of owning reptiles would be a useful target of further study.

If, as an individual vet, you are concerned that the harm outweighs the benefits of breeding and killing rodents for pet reptile food, you have several options open to you. However, it is unlikely to be useful to refuse to see animals fed on rodents altogether and we are required by the RCVS to provide first aid for all species in an emergency.

Possible way forward

Whatever your view on the positives and negatives of the situation, it should still be possible to optimise the welfare of the food animals. One option would be to encourage owners, perhaps via waiting room leaflets, to research the source of their pet's food, in the same way as we might encourage people to consider the source of their own food. For example, where have the rodents been produced and does this tell you anything about their welfare?

Many reptile owners are already committed to welfare-friendly rodent production and such an approach would demonstrate that the veterinary practice shares their views, improving client loyalty.

A vet could likewise build up a relationship with a responsible UK-based supplier and recommend them to local pet shops and pet owners. If a good relationship is built up with the supplier there might be opportunities for discussing the welfare of the rodents without causing offence or suspicion. Some rodent producers already use cages designed for laboratories and there is a large body of knowledge about rodent husbandry in the research animal field that could be used to optimise the husbandry of pet food rodents. Perhaps guides on good husbandry could be produced by laboratory animal vets for distribution to pet food rodent suppliers? Could a high welfare labelling scheme be encouraged, along the lines of Freedom Food?

The trickiest question, which has been discussed at some length for dogs, is how to reach pet owners before they acquire the pet. This strategy would present the ideal opportunity for engaging reptile owners in a discussion about the use of rodents as pet food.

In the future, technology may solve this dilemma by generating suitable food in alternative ways. If we accept the need for vermin control and if a humane method is used, are there ways to make the resulting dead rodents safe to eat? Or perhaps mice made out of Quorn could be an ideal solution?

Any comments?

Readers with views to contribute on ‘Rodents’ rights: patients or provisions?' should e-mail them to inpractice{at}bva-edit.co.uk so that they can be considered for publication in the next issue. The deadline for receipt of comments is Friday, March 22. Please limit contributions to 200 words.

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