VEGA News 12 - Vets: Doctored and Knackered?


It needs much more than Herriot-worship to honor vows of endeavor for animal welfare

Vets can progress in their profession by attendance at post-graduate courses. During 2001 such a course of 10 lectures will concentrate on animal behavior. It will be run by Samantha Scott, who qualified from Bristol University Veterinary School, and after an internship at Glasgow Veterinary School, saw mixed practice in Ayrshire. Her interest increased in behavior therapy and acupuncture, and in 1993 she moved to Surrey, where she worked at Roger Mugford’s Behavior Centre before becoming a lecturer at Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities in Behavior Therapy and Ethology. She runs a behavior clinic at Glasgow Veterinary School.

The prospectus for her course of lectures defines the aim: “to give veterinarians a basic grounding in the fundamentals of animal behavior so that they can work through any problem from first principles. It is designed to cover all the veterinary species: dogs, cats, horses, small furries, and exotics, although the majority of the emphasis will be on cats and dogs since they form the great case-load for most in practice.” VEGA notes that the case-load to serious animal welfarists is at least 10 to 1 the other way round, and certainly farm animals predominate even if poultry are excluded; and farm livestock, like horses, manifest in stereotypy and other derangements and self-abuse behavioral symptoms of distress.

Vets, Farmers, and the Public

“We are hearing of consultancies being terminated and retiring staff not being replaced. We have no NHS back-up, nor for that matter government or EU subsidies. We stand alone as small independent businesses providing, in an increasingly competitive world that includes a seeming array of lay pregnancy diagnosticians and scanners and foot trimmers, a private health service to our clients and the animals under our care.” Mr Eifion Evans, president of the British Veterinary Association, launched thus into the increasing gloom for veterinarians in large animal practice as farmers pleaded inability to pay the bills (Farmers Weekly, 21 July 2000).

Vets are also suffering attack for the prices they charge on the drugs they prescribe. “It was hardly surprising that so many new graduates were retreating into small animal practice. Gaining experience with farm animals was increasingly difficult as workloads were reduced, and on-farm visits consisting mainly of putting cows down under the OTMS (over 30 months scheme) were a depressing experience for all, let alone an idealist young vet,” Mr Evans said.

Work for vets in the Meat Hygiene Service is arduous, ill-paid, and unpopular. Mr Evans expressed “concern about negative and even adverse publicity for the profession linked to increased involvement with abattoirs. The government required this, and the profession did not welcome increased veterinary cover, especially in medium to low throughput plants.”

Mr Evans has protested at the “fluffy” image vets are acquiring. “We are in danger of becoming typecast in the eyes of both the public and government, as entertainers and personalities rather than as professionals getting on with looking after people’s pets and livestock. As a learned profession and as scientists, I would rather see us using our media savvy to promote our expertise in animal health, animal welfare, and public health” (Veterinary Record, 7 October 2000).

Black Market Drugs

Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) has given vets plenty of work in 2001 of an unpleasant kind. Even before that vets had plenty to complain about. Mr Peter Inman, a member of the BVA’s Veterinary Policy Group and a vet practising in a rural area of Herefordshire— “scenically beautiful but uneconomic” - where TB had been unknown 6 years ago but is now endemic, spelt out some of the profession’s problems: “practice income was under threat. Disease testing for MAFF had declined, although it was still a factor in some areas. Medicines sales were an important source of practice income but were being eroded by a black market supply to farmers. However, many veterinary surgeons would not report illegal sales for fear of offending clients.”

Mr Jinman emphasized.phpects of animal welfare, “which would be inevitably compromised if vets were unable to get on to farms.” He felt it “essential that, at the very least, an annual visit to assess welfare on farms should be part of the process” (Veterinary Record, 22 April 2000).

Mr Roger Eddy, then junior vice-president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, commented on the tendency towards bigger and bigger farms, some with 5000 or more head of cattle. “Such enterprises would want discounted veterinary services, invite tenders or perhaps employ their own veterinary staff,” he said. Mr Eddy cited estimates that sales in farm practice of medicines contributed 60% of the turnover and 75% of the profit. Even in small animal practice they accounted for 45% of the turnover. He stated that prices of animal medicines in the UK were the highest in the EU.

Animal Welfare and Subsidies

Mr Barry Johnson, senior partner in a mixed practice in Lancashire, lamented that animal welfare had “suffered badly” owing to the reduction in farm visits. “The only boom in large animal work is in casualty work,” he said.

Mr Bruce Vivash Jones, chairman of the BVA’s Veterinary Policy Group, described schemes operating in other countries. He said Sweden’s system was subsidized by the state; Japan had a mutual aid system for farmers and vets; Israel had a non-commercial scheme covering veterinary care, medicines, and loss of animals. All of those options were unlikely in the UK. New Zealand had a veterinary club scheme, which “worked well.”

The adverse effect on animal welfare of the downturn in livestock work has engaged further comment. Mr Bob Young of Devon, a past-president of the BVA, said that “dairy farms were closing every week, while subsistence farmers sold out for the value of their property.” Welfare problems are “very severe,” said Mr Young, adding that vets “were having to shoot cows that ‘should have been shot last week,’ because the farmer could not pay for a cesarian operation.” Dr Sandy Clark, from the north of Scotland, said that lack of MAFF work meant “fewer farm visits, fewer calvings, more cullings” and “bigger units also contributed to a reduction in veterinary work and to poorer welfare.”

Lame-free Milk?

Mr Richard Sibley, senior partner in a 7-vet mixed practice in Devon, and then president of the British Cattle Veterinary Association, has spoken on Veterinary Aspects of Farm Assurance (Veterinary Record, 7 October 2000) and observed that “the aim in introducing a health plan was to measure health and welfare realities. We get fed up with pressure groups telling us that free-range is great and that high-yielding is unsustainable and a disaster for welfare.” He named among the “welfare realities” the fact that “20% of heifers reared did not reach their second lactation and that 1 in 5 cows producing milk was lame.”

Mr Sibley concluded: “If producers could put on their package this is ‘lame-free’ milk rather than free-range milk, we would be doing the cows much more good.” Vets would do much more good if they boycotted foods produced in a slavery they condemn ineffectually. A veterinarian should be only a misprint away from a vegetarian.

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