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, ‘Confronting bad husbandry’, was submitted and is discussed by Kathryn Henderson. 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 ‘Honesty and euthanasia’, which was published in the July/August issue of In Practice, appears on page 487.
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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Kathryn Henderson graduated from the University of Liverpool in 2012 and working in first opinion mixed practice.
Confronting bad husbandry
You visit a local horse breeder, who is a long-standing client, but notice areas of concern with the animals' living quarters. Ponies are housed in makeshift pens, from which they have evidently not be let out for a while. Mares, foals and stallions are being kept in stables that have not been cleaned out. A large number of youngstock are kept in outdoor areas that are very muddy and full of manure. Although they can stand on slats, to move around they must wade through the deep liquid slurry. This is not a one-off occurrence as a second visit reveals the same problems but, despite these concerns, you also note that most of the horses appear to be in good condition and bodyweight. Nonetheless, you feel that the owner is not taking your gentle advice on board and, when you mention these concerns back at the practice, they seem to fall on deaf ears. What should you do?
Issues to consider
The principal thing to take into account is the animals' welfare and, in order to do so, it is useful to use the five freedoms as a framework: freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury or disease, freedom to express normal behaviour, freedom from fear and distress.
In this situation the animals were fed and watered. Even though the food may not have been provided in an ideal condition, it nonetheless appeared to be accessible and it was clear that the animals were in good condition. In terms of discomfort, the condition of the pens, which were full of dung, was likely to eventually lead to illness (particularly in the feet), as was the constant exposure to slurry; however, the actual level of day-to-day discomfort experienced by the animals could be debatable. Also, the very fact that a vet was called to the farm presupposes that the owners were prepared to have any injured or sick animals looked after and that pain, injury and disease were, therefore, being prevented.
The freedom to express normal behaviour is predominantly an issue for animals that are permanently kept in pens and do not receive any exercise. The question that must be considered here is exactly what constitutes normal management of horses – particularly, during the winter when many horses are kept in stables 24 hours a day. It is a controversial issue but one that seems to be accepted practice. Therefore, based on the five freedoms criteria, the conditions described in the scenario do not appear to cause significant distress to the animals.
However, veterinary surgeons are supposed not only to alleviate but also to prevent suffering. It appears that, when this kind of preventative advice was offered informally to the client in the past, it was not take on board. There also seems to be a issue around getting adequate support for improvement from the practice principal.
Possible way forward
The first thing to do would be to organise a meeting with the practice boss to discuss specific concerns in a formal manner. A practice principal should ideally be supportive of a vet's development, and this includes the ability to deal with difficult situations, such as coming across less than optimal animal management. It could be tricky for a vet to engage the breeder if their boss is reticent and would prefer to have an easy life. However, simply ignoring the situation would likely be difficult, as accepting such poor husbandry standards might be ethical challenging. As a reflective practitioner, the vet would have to think about how this might sit with professional ethics.
While another option would be to report the owner to the animal welfare authorities, this would risk possibly breaching client confidentiality and it would be advisable to have full practice support and to discuss it with the RCVS's professional conduct department before making a report. (There is specific guidance on client confidentiality on the RCVS website, www.rcvs.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/code-of-professional-conduct-for-veterinary-surgeons/supporting-guidance/client-confidentiality). However, in this case, as the animals are fed and watered and on the whole have space to move around, it is debatable how effective this approach would ultimately be anyway.
The ideal way forward in this case would be for the vet to aim to educate the client regarding good hygiene on farm. (It might also be prudent, before doing this, to wait and see if conditions improve on subsequent visits, particularly if the first two visits were during the winter.) Preferably, the practice boss would also be onside by this point, and the vet could organise a free-of-charge meeting with the farm owner to discuss ways of improving herd health – perhaps introducing it as a new practice initiative. The vet could explain the concerns as well as introduce potential solutions and, as the client is a commercial breeder, it might be useful to stress the effects of poor management on animal welfare while tying it in to profitability.
Readers with views to contribute on ‘Confronting bad husbandry’ should e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org so that they can be considered for publication in the next issue. The deadline for receipt of comments is Friday, September 20. Please limit contributions to 200 words.
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