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IN a report published last month the Farm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC)describes the farm animal veterinary surgeon as ‘second only to the stock-keeper/stockperson in ensuring that farm animals in Great Britain are treated humanely’, but it would be wrong to take that amiss. Ever since it was set up more than 30 years ago, the FAWC, which advises the Government on animal welfare issues, has consistently stressed that stockmanship is ‘the single most important influence on the welfare of farm animals’, so for it to emphasise the role of the veterinary profession in this way indicates just how significant it considers that role to be. Furthermore, the report makes a number of recommendations for how the veterinarian's role in this area should be expanded and developed.

The report (see pp 607-608 of this issue) discusses the impact of animal health on animal welfare, and much else besides. It is extraordinary to think that, only a few years ago, the (previous) Government had gone so far as to draft a parliamentary Bill that, in administrative terms, would have separated responsibility for animal health from responsibility for animal welfare when, as the FAWC makes clear, animal health and welfare are so inextricably linked. Such decisions can have practical implications, as illustrated by discussion in the report of veterinary surveillance. There are currently separate research and policy groups for animal health and animal welfare within Defra and, the report suggests, this could result in useful intelligence, and opportunities for synergy, being missed. More generally, the report makes some useful points on surveillance, in particular in highlighting ‘a major gap’ in surveillance for endemic diseases such as mastitis, lameness, respiratory disease and diseases caused by endo- and ectoparasites which, while they might not have a big impact on society, nevertheless have a significant impact on animal welfare.

Equally pertinent is the discussion in the report of responsibility and cost sharing and of the opportunities this might present for bringing about improvements in farm animal health along with economic, environmental and animal welfare benefits. Here, the FAWC suggests that the Government needs to have more of an input if it is to fulfil its ‘guardianship role’ to protect and promote animal welfare and if the potential for improving health and welfare is to be maximised. At the same time, it clearly sets out what it sees as the responsibilities of the livestock industry, vets and food processors and retailers. In doing so, it identifies a number of key themes for improving animal welfare through better animal health management over the next 20 years, on which, it says, all of the stakeholders should work together.

Discussing the veterinary profession's role, the report places great emphasis on disease prevention and farm animal health planning in improving welfare. In addition and in relation to this, it emphasises the importance of accurate disease recognition, and prompt and appropriate treatment, with farmers working closely with their veterinary surgeon. It draws attention to the veterinary surgeon's roles in surveillance and in helping to ensure that medicines, particularly antimicrobials and anthelmintics, are used appropriately. It also notes that there are numerous areas of endemic disease research that would benefit from greater veterinary involvement.

Attitudes to animal welfare have changed in recent years, particularly, perhaps, following legal recognition of animals as sentient beings, and, reflecting on some ethical issues, the FAWC discusses animals' mental health and emotional states in a way that would have been unlikely in a report of this kind 20 years ago. Discussing the progress of animal welfare science, it suggests that although, traditionally, this developed ‘largely outwith veterinary science’, things are now changing, with research being carried out in most veterinary schools and with animal welfare science forming an increasing part of the undergraduate curriculum.

The report makes some useful recommendations but, as is so often the case, the question remains as to how far they will be implemented. As the FAWC points out, the approach to animal health is still often reactive, despite the availability of information on disease prevention and the known costs of disease. It also notes that there are many endemic diseases, such as lameness and mastitis, where there has been no reduction in prevalence for a number of years. It is to be hoped that the opportunities presented by cost and responsibility sharing and wider application of farm animal health planning might help move things forward. A clear message from the report is that this is an area in which the veterinary profession has a key role to play.

■ Farm Animal Welfare: Health and Disease. Farm Animal Welfare Committee, November 2012. www.defra.gov.uk/fawc/files/Farm-Animal-Welfare-Health-and-Disease.pdf, accessed December 12, 2012

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