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US professor slams American farm vets for ‘not speaking out’ on welfare

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By Adele Waters

US livestock vets don’t speak out sufficiently about animal welfare issues and, as a result, animal welfare is less consistent than it is in the UK.

That is the view of Jim Reynolds (pictured), professor of large animal medicine and welfare at Western University, California.

Speaking at last week’s Animal Welfare Foundation Discussion Forum, he was publicly critical of the US profession.

It’s massively important for veterinarians to speak about welfare issues. That’s what we are supposed to do

‘It’s massively important for veterinarians to speak about welfare issues. That’s what we are supposed to do. When we don’t speak out for animals … then there is a problem and it’s a particular problem in North America.

‘Veterinarian groups [there] refuse to accept criticism of any kind, so even when we find there is a consensus to not do tail docking, or beak trimming in chickens, we just can’t get a veterinarian group to make that public.’

But strong veterinary leadership is important for influencing legislation, he said. ‘It would help a lot because the legislative bodies follow the veterinarian groups. If the veterinarian groups in a state don’t speak out and have a consensus on these issues, then the legislative bodies can’t act.’

Professor Reynolds later spoke to Vet Record. Currently visiting the UK on a tour of farm animal practice, he said he had first observed a stark contrast between UK and US vets during the foot-and-mouth disease crisis.

‘When I was here for the 2001 outbreak, we were talking about non-ambulatory cows on dairies and at that time a non-ambulatory cow in the US would be dragged by a chain onto a truck and taken to slaughter. And no veterinarian spoke out about it.

‘I realised quickly that if a veterinarian in the UK was on a dairy with a non-ambulatory cow and somebody did that, the veterinarian would tell them they can’t.

‘In the US if you tried that, the dairy farmer would fire the veterinarian and hire somebody [else] in 20 minutes. No other veterinarian would stand up because they want the business, they don’t want to lose the client.’

US farm veterinarians, he said, were ‘business bound’ – more focused on maintaining clients than trying to change behaviour towards welfare improvement. As a result, they had low professional standing and limited influence, he said, and that had been consistently the case for decades.

He conceded that it was a general perception around the world that food animal vets do not feel sufficiently respected by their clients but in the USA, this translated into a lack of direct influence and presence.

‘A large dairy in the Mid West doesn’t have veterinarians. The feed company provides a veterinarian once a month to come out,’ he said. ‘Veterinarians are perceived as expensive. The lay people will do the pregnancy diagnosing, pharmaceutical companies provide veterinarians for free if there is a problem.’

He said US farm management was task focused, so vets in dairies tended to work mainly on reproductive programmes, and lay people managed lameness.

‘Livestock veterinarians in the US are all certain that they are completely aware of everything that goes on on client farms but it’s just not so.

‘There are many specific instances where veterinarians and clients interact very well on farms but, by and large, we have moved more marginally and many many farms in the US don’t use vets in any serious capacity any more.’

The lack of veterinary presence was hard to quantify in terms of impact, he said. ‘I think there is more consistency of welfare on [UK] farms.

‘Vets here are more holistic so if there is a welfare concern, that would be discussed. So the consistency would be far better here. In the US, there is a wide range … But in most dairies, the animals are ignored.

‘You can’t go to a dairy and not find a medical case within five or 10 minutes,’ he said. ‘I see [that] if there becomes a problem on a farm – any kind of health problem – the dairies without veterinary services don’t really know what to do. They are simply doing today what they did yesterday and then they are at the mercy of the pharma companies or feed companies that supply a vet for free.’

Gail Golab, chief veterinary officer of the American Veterinary Medical Association, which represents more than 93,000 US vets, said the organisation had a long history of developing animal welfare policy and encouraging its implementation.

‘We have worked and continue to work with producers, processors, retailers, and their organisations to help them improve their animal care programmes.

‘In addition, we are active in Washington, DC, via our government relations division, to ensure consideration of animals’ welfare in relevant legislation and regulation.

‘Our policies reflect the latest advancements in animal science and research and are designed to help guide our members and the profession.’•

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