Posted by: glamielle | April 3, 2011

Animal Welfare and Public Health

The role of veterinarians in promoting animal welfare is evident and explicitly stated in the AVMA’s Veterinary Oath, along with their involvement in protecting public health.

Veterinarians are therefore at the perfect intersection of these two ideas that may seem somewhat unrelated. While it is part of my ethical beliefs that unnecessary suffering in animals should be prevented, it is important to recognize that promoting animal welfare goes beyond an ethical imperative, it is also a necessary step to improving public health.

The concept of promoting welfare in animals is often brought up in most industrialized countries, however, it is in the developing world that the majority of animals suffer neglect or mistreatment.

Treatment of animals in various countries is largely dependent on cultural context and is influenced by experiences, education, religion, community, among other factors. Many who live in developing countries don’t always view animal welfare as a priority. We must remain open-minded when we approach these communities as Westerners and try not to impose our values of ethical treatment of animals in these regions where the people themselves are struggling to survive and improve their own welfare.

However, One Health gives us the tools to improve treatment of animals by promoting public health. Indeed, developing communities need to see how promoting proper animal welfare can benefit them. This doesn’t so much stem from a feeling of selfishness but rather a need for self-preservation.

One of my patients in Morocco, presented plantigrade on the left rear leg and I suspected Achilles tendon rupture. The dog suffered a laceration injury on that leg from a knife wound during a fight. Left: suturing gastrocnemius tendon ends. Right: post-operatively, the patient should not use the affected leg for the next month to avoid tension on the tendon. Unfortunately, the dog never presented for re-check examination.

Working in a free veterinary clinic in Morocco, I was often exposed to cases of animal neglect or mistreatment (although to be fair, I must also recognize that many of my clients treated their animals very well). These usually included malnourished animals, as their owners often gave them scraps of their meal or a diet based on milk and bread. As a veterinarian, educating the owners on proper animal handling and nutrition was an important part of my work, along with deworming these patients, reducing intestinal parasite load and decreasing the chance of zoonotic transmission.

This dog presented with a laceration from unknown origin. Although the owners said it had just happened, it was evident during examination that laceration was several days old. The wound was flushed, debrided and closed. The patient recovered uneventfully.

Dog aggression was also a major issue, which often made it difficult to work with some patients. There was a belief among many owners that proper dog management was through violent repression of unwanted behavior. Naturally, some animals became very fearful of human contact, which translated into aggression. Aggressive dogs can become unpredictable and more prone to biting. This has a direct effect on public health as bite wounds can often lead to grave injuries, especially in children. Furthermore, a study from 2007 done by the Moroccan Ministry of Agriculture looked at rabies statistics in the country. Researchers saw that dogs were the main vector for transmission of rabies to humans and that cases of human rabies averaged 22/year. It is important to remember that rabies remains a largely incurable disease. The study also indicated that dog fighting was implicated in the transmission of the virus to people.

Large abdominal hernia in a mule. Lesions like this one can cause intestinal entrapment and torsion, often fatal without significant surgical intervention. A large number of patient presented with similar conditions, which may be related to excess pressure on abdominal wall from long-term carrying of heavy loads.

While the link between animal welfare and public health is clear looking at this previous example, it is even more direct when one looks at working animals. Many people in developing countries depend on animals such as livestock to survive, whether it is for consumption or transport of loads. The center of the Moroccan town of Fès, called the Medina, is a network of medieval streets only accessible to pedestrians. As such, merchants largely use animals such as donkeys and mules to transport goods. Thus, neglect or malnourishment of these animals can severely affect these merchants’ businesses if they are unable to reach parts of the city and it makes sense that keeping these animals healthy is essential for the wellbeing of the people depending on them.

Overgrown hoof in a mule. Conditions like these can lead to permanent damage to hooves and tendons, causing chronic pain and lameness.

From my experience in North Africa, animal mistreatment often originate from lack of education or proper understanding of what these animals need, weighed against the people’s own needs. Education always plays a pivotal role in development of populations and it is important that leaders in animal health such as veterinarians be good resources on proper animal management practices. However, when trying to promote animal welfare in culturally diverse environments, it is also important to recognize the local cultural or religious values that guide these communities. We must find ways to work within this framework if we want the changes to be well-received and integrated in the lifestyle of these communities. This is why cooperation with local leaders such as governmental but also religious is essential.

Lastly, I want to share an example in the United States where improving animal welfare led to a benefit to both the animals affected and the people depending on them. Dr. Temple Grandin, professor at Colorado State University, was concerned over the state of distress of various livestock species in agricultural settings. Drawing on experiences with dealing with her autism, she recognized similarities between prey species and autistic behaviors and used that insight to improve animal’s conditions in farms. Chronic stress in animals can lead to several adverse effects such as increased susceptibility to diseases, failure to thrive or physical trauma when panicking animals injure themselves. As farmers lost significant numbers of cows from stress and self-inflicted injuries, she approached them with plans for improved facilities that made use of the animals’ natural behaviors to reduce handling stress. Changes included curving corrals so that cows could only see few animals ahead of them but also avoiding use of objects prone to scare animals such as reflecting surfaces, smooth floors or chains. These improvements lead to reduced mortality rates in cows used for agriculture and thus increased production and benefits for farmers, a win-win situation. Of course, conditions of farmed animals can still improve but Dr. Grandin’s changes have largely become the norm when managing livestock in the USA.

Example of curving corral developed by Dr. Grandin. (image from: http://www.grandin.com/design/design.html)

It is important to realize that animal welfare should not just be the agenda of animal activist groups, but rather an important component of public health and animal production activities. This idea is spreading within international organizations such as the OIE, which include promotion of animal welfare on their list of objectives. As human population grows and human-animal contact increases, we must be proactive and determine how we can best serve both the health of populations and the animals they depend on.

For more information on animal welfare:

Gregory NG. 2004. Physiology and behaviour of animal suffering. UFAW Animal Welfare Series. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.

American Veterinary Medical Association – Animal Welfare

OIE – Animal Welfare

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