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Comments on the dilemma in the November/December issue: ‘Fate of a severely lame cow’
  1. Siobhan Mullan
  1. University of Bristol


The dilemma in the November/December issue concerned a severely lame cow with deep digital sepsis. It had lost a lot of condition and was 10/10 lame. Despite your opinion that euthanasia was the best option, the farmer wanted it taken to slaughter, following a digital amputation and some fattening-up (In Practice, November/December 2014, vol 35, pp 526-527). Suggesting a way forward, Gwen Rees stressed the importance of frank communication as a first step, both to explain exactly why digit amputation was not in the cow's best interest, and to maintain a positive farm/vet relationship. Failing this, she suggested that a second opinion, done in a timely fashion, should be sought. Finally, contacting the RSPCA or the police should be a last resort. She also suggested that there might be a deeper welfare issue at the farm that should be investigated.

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THE decision in this case included a consideration of the expected length and degree of poor welfare of the cow if a digit amputation was performed. Like other consequentialist philosophies the utilitarian approach suggested inevitably involves an estimation of the likely consequences of each option, followed by a ‘weighing up’ of the pros and cons of the alternative actions to identify the best outcome. Gwen Rees' assertion that the veterinary surgeon's clinical judgement about welfare of the cow after amputation is likely to be more valid than the farmer's made me think about the extent of the validity of our clinical judgements.

We make these clinical judgements based on our pre- and postgraduate training and our direct experience. Some of the training may have involved reference to studies; in this case, for example, about the length and degree of lameness after amputation as an indicator of pain. But such studies have rarely looked holistically at other aspects of welfare, for example, the effect on social status within the herd. We may have gleaned some of this type of information for ourselves in a non-structured way over time and we then need to combine it with estimations of how the farm specific circumstances will affect welfare, for example, the attentiveness of the farmer, willingness to use analgesia, and so on. So, there are many variables in each case, making accurate judgements more difficult. Overall, we are rarely in a position to formally test our judgements, although by learning from our mistakes we are hopefully honing this ability all the time.

Siobhan Mullan is research fellow at the University of Bristol with interests in practical welfare assessment and animal ethics. She holds the RCVS diploma in animal welfare science, ethics and law.

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} We pay a small honorarium for contributions that are published.

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