Cover Page





I Principles of Veterinary and Animal Ethics

1 The History of Veterinary Ethics in Britain, ca.1870–2000

1.1 Introduction

1.2 Professional Conduct and the Relief of Animal Suffering, 1870–1919

1.3 The Ethical Nature of Veterinary Work, 1919–1948

1.4 The Eclipse of Animal Ethics, 1948–1975

1.5 The Reshaping of Veterinary Ethical Thought, 1975–2000

1.6 Conclusion

2 The Idea of Animal Welfare – Developments and Tensions

2.1 Background – The Modern Idea of Animal Welfare and the Brambell Report

2.2 Conclusions

3 Lessons from Medical Ethics

3.1 What Can Veterinary Ethics Learn from Medical Ethics (and Vice Versa)?

3.2 The Relevance of Medical/Veterinary Ethics and Its Place in the Undergraduate Curriculum

3.3 Role of Medical Ethics in Driving Legal Change

3.4 Professional Ethics – Behaviour and Regulation

3.5 Ethical Approaches to Dilemmas Confronting the Modern Veterinarian – Can We Learn from Clinical Ethics Frameworks?

4 Veterinary Ethics, Professionalism and Society

4.1 Introduction

4.2 The Nature of the Modern Profession

4.3 Veterinary Professional Ethics – More than Etiquette!

4.4 The Effect of the Societal Context on the Profession and Its Members

4.5 Professionalism and Physician Agency

4.6 Lessons for Veterinary Education

4.7 Continued Relevance to Society of the Professional Model

4.8 Conclusion

II Justifying Ends – The Morality of Animal Use

5 Justice of Animal Use in the Veterinary Profession

5.1 Societal Relationships with Animals

5.2 The Different Uses of Animals and Their Moral Status

5.3 The Separation of Animals from Humans

5.4 Justice as Understood by the Medical Profession

5.5 Veterinarians and Animal Justice

5.6 Conclusion

6 Telos



7 Agriculture, Animal Welfare and Climate Change

7.1 Introduction

7.2 The Link between Agriculture and Climate Change

7.3 Sustainable Intensification

7.4 Livestock Intensification and Animal Welfare Problems

7.5 The Ethics of Genetic Modification

7.6 Radical Naturalism: An Alternative to Sustainable Intensification

7.7 Discussion

7.8 Conceptions of Human Nature

7.9 Summary

8 Ethics and Ethical Analysis in Veterinary Science: The Development and Application of the Ethical Matrix Method

8.1 Introduction

8.2 Professional Ethics and Animals

8.3 Ethical Tools: The Role of the Ethical Matrix

8.4 Original Development and Application of the Ethical Matrix

8.5 Further Development of the Ethical Matrix

8.6 Development of the Ethical Matrix and Its Use in Veterinary Practice

9 The Ethics of Animal Enhancement

9.1 Introduction

9.2 What Is Enhancement?

9.3 Normalcy

9.4 Terms of Reference for the Future Debate on Animal Enhancement

9.5 Animal Welfare Implications

III Ethical Analyses of Animal Use

10 Wildlife Medicine, Conservation and Welfare

10.1 Introduction

10.2 Anthropogenic Threats to Wild Animal Conservation

10.3 To Which Wild Animals Do Welfare Concerns Apply?

10.4 Anthropogenic Threats to Wild Animal Welfare

10.5 Responsibility for Wildlife Welfare

10.6 Interventions for Wildlife Welfare

10.7 Welfare/Conservation Conflicts

10.8 Dealing with Welfare/Conservation Conflicts

10.9 Concluding Comments

11 Veterinary Ethics and the Use of Animals in Research: Are They Compatible?

11.1 Historical Perspectives

11.2 Scale of Usage

11.3 Public Perceptions

11.4 Ethical Standpoints

11.5 Measuring Harms and Benefits

11.6 The Rise of the 3Rs

11.7 Ethics and the Drug Discovery Process

11.8 Openness

11.9 Conclusion: The Role of the Veterinary Profession

12 Production Animals: Ethical and Welfare Issues Raised by Production-focused Management of Newborn Livestock

12.1 Introduction

12.2 Production-Orientated Neonatal Management Issues

12.3 Ethical and Animal Welfare Issues

13 Companion Animals

13.1 Introduction

13.2 Domestication of Cats and Dogs

13.3 The Role of Cats and Dogs in the Family: The Human-Companion Animal Bond (CAB)

13.4 Ethical Issues Arising from a Shared Lifestyle

13.5 Ethical Issues Arising from Pets as ‘Furry Children’: The Importance of the Individual

13.6 Euthanasia

13.7 Conclusion

14 Ethical Analysis of the Use of Animals for Sport

14.1 Introduction

14.2 Welfare Issues of Animals in Sport

14.3 The Ethics of Using Animals for Sport

14.4 Conclusion

IV Cultural, Political, Legal and Economic Considerations

15 Global Cultural Considerations of Animal Ethics

15.1 Introduction

15.2 Variation within a Culture

15.3 Variation between European Countries

15.4 Variation between Continents

15.5 Variation between Specific Cultures

15.6 Working Together

16 Animal Ethics and the Government’s Policy: ‘To Guard and Protect’

16.1 Historical Perspective on English Law and Its Regard for Animals

16.2 Development of Government Policy on bTB: A Wicked Problem

16.3 Animal Ethics, Animal Welfare and Government Policy-making Today

16.4 Conclusions

17 Veterinary Ethics and Law

17.1 Introduction

17.2 Disciplinary Proceedings against Veterinarians

17.3 Handling Complaints

17.4 Defects in the Complaints Procedure

17.5 Disciplinary Appeals

17.6 The Case for Reform

18 Ethical Citizenship

18.1 Introduction

18.2 Citizens Want More Ethical Treatment of Animals

18.3 Problems for Citizens and Consumers

18.4 Responsibility of the Citizen/Consumer

18.5 Conclusion

19 Principles, Preference and Profit: Animal Ethics in a Market Economy

19.1 Introduction

19.2 The Basic Model of Economic Activity

19.3 Animals in Economic Activity

19.4 Ethics and Market Behaviour

19.5 Moral versus Economic Value

Debate: ‘Is It Better to Have Lived and Lost than Never to Have Lived at All?’


The Universities Federation for Animal Welfare

UFAW, founded in 1926, is an internationally recognised, independent, scientific and educational animal welfare charity that promotes high standards of welfare for farm, companion, laboratory and captive wild animals, and for those animals with which we interact in the wild. It works to improve animals’ lives by:

‘Improvements in the care of animals are not now likely to come of their own accord, merely by wishing them: there must be research … and it is in sponsoring research of this kind, and making its results widely known, that UFAW performs one of its most valuable services.’

Sir Peter Medawar CBE FRS, 8th May 1957

Nobel Laureate (1960), Chairman of the UFAW Scientific Advisory Committee (1951–1962)

UFAW relies on the generosity of the public through legacies and donations to carry out its work, improving the welfare of animal now and in the future. For further information about UFAW and how you can help promote and support its work, please contact us at the address below:

Universities Federation for Animal Welfare

The Old School, Brewhouse Hill, Wheathampstead, Herts AL4 8AN, UK

Tel: 01582 831818 Fax: 01582 831414 Website:


UFAW’s aim regarding the UFAW/Wiley-Blackwell Animal Welfare book series is to promote interest and debate in the subject and to disseminate information relevant to improving the welfare of kept animals and of those harmed in the wild through human agency. The books in this series are the works of their authors, and the views they express do not necessarily reflect the views of UFAW.



Michael C. Appleby
World Society for the Protection of Animals

Patrick Bateson
University of Cambridge

Madeleine Campbell
Hobgoblins Equine Reproduction Centre

Sandra A. Corr
University of Nottingham

University of Copenhagen

Marie Fox
University of Birmingham

Nigel Gibbens
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Colin Gilbert
The Babraham Institute

Sophia Hepple
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Peter Jinman
Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons

Carolyn Johnston
King’s College and Kingston University

Karsten Klint Jensen
University of Copenhagen

James K. Kirkwood
Universities Federation for Animal Welfare

Judy MacArthur Clark
Home Office

Stephen A. May
Royal Veterinary College

Steven P. McCulloch
Royal Veterinary College

John McInerney
University of Exeter

David J. Mellor
Massey University
Palmerston North

Kate Millar
University of Nottingham

Bernard E. Rollin
Colorado State University

Peter Sandøe
University of Copenhagen

John Webster
University of Bristol

Martin C. Whiting
Royal Veterinary College

Sarah Wolfensohn
Seventeen Eighty Nine

Abigail Woods
Imperial College

James Yeates


Ethics is synonymous with Moral Philosophy, which implies much more than just trying to do the right thing; it forces such questions as what is right, right for whom and why? This conference on veterinary and animal ethics asks us to consider our duties to the animals, primarily in our care, not excluding animals in the wild where their welfare is directly or indirectly affected by man or his activities. It explores how these duties may be reconciled with our other duties of care not only to human society but to the entire living environment. It recognises that if these ethical principles are to be put into practice, rather than act merely as aids to a sense of moral superiority, they have to accommodate both the realities of politics and economics and the biology of human motivation.

Veterinary ethics is a clearly defined subset of this general duty of care. Veterinarians have to reconcile their responsibilities to their animal patients, their human clients, their own welfare and that of their families. However, the ethical principles that apply to veterinary practice do not differ in essence from those that apply to anyone who uses animals, whether directly as a farmer or pet owner, or indirectly as food, clothing or for new drugs.

A useful way to address our complex ethical responsibilities to all parties is through application of the ethical matrix, described here by Kate Millar. This (in my interpretation) sets out two fundamental principles of ethics (input factors). The first is the consequentialist principle of beneficence/non-maleficence, which equates to the utilitarian promotion of general well-being. The second is the ­principle of autonomy, which equates to the duty to ‘do as you would be done by’. In veterinary and animal ethics, these principles are applied to four concerned ­parties: society at large, direct animal users (farmers, veterinarians, scientists), domestic animals (used by us) and finally all the fauna and flora that make up the living environment. Balanced application of these two moral principles to ­recognise and address the needs of all concerned parties should achieve the desired outcome, which is the best approximation to justice for all. If this requires a descent into moral relativism, then so be it.

Direct and indirect users of animals, for example farmers and consumers, ­respectively, are moral agents with the duty to balance rights and responsibilities; rights to safe food and drugs against our responsibilities to the animals involved in their production. The animals (and the environment) are the moral patients. They have no responsibilities to us. One can conclude from this that they have no rights either although this is a very one-sided conclusion since they cannot argue their case. What is certain is that we all share the responsibility to ensure that those to whom we entrust the duty of care have both the competence and the compassion to do it well. It is very easy to care about animals; caring for them takes skill and it takes patience.

The invited papers, debate and discussion contained within this book may be seen as variations on three main themes:

Classic moral philosophy (e.g. Plato) may define the good according to absolute and unchanging paradigms. However, our interpretation of these paradigms is in a state of constant flux. Papers by Woods, Johnson, May and Appleby explore ­changing attitudes within and between cultures to the human and animal patients that come within our care. When I was young it was deemed perfectly acceptable to drown kittens at birth; now we agonise over whether it is an insult to its telos to spay a cat. The shifting sands of practical morality should engender a sense of ­caution. We cannot assume that we who attended a meeting in London, UK, in 2011 are necessarily more moral now than those who came before or those in other cultures who live far away. Neither can we assume that our current concepts of middle-class morality will survive the impact of unforeseen future knowledge and future pressures on society. The principle of ‘judge not, that ye be not judged’ has an excellent provenance.

Papers by Mellor, Gilbert, Campbell and Corr examine ethical issues arising from the way we currently treat the animals which bring us direct benefits in the form of food, medicine, entertainment and love. James Kirkwood considers our responsibilities to wildlife. These papers, explicitly or by implication, acknowledge at the outset the principles of beneficence and autonomy then proceed to explore the extent to which animal owners fulfil their duties to promote the general well-being and individual freedoms of animals in their care in the light of current knowledge of their physiological and behavioural needs. The moral strength of these papers lies in their recognition of the need to seek a better understanding of what they, the ­animals, would like from us, as distinct from what we would like from them.

The third and most pragmatic series of papers address problems of acting according to ethical principles within the real world. The law defines the limits of acceptable and unacceptable conduct. Laws defined in broad terms such as ‘unacceptable suffering’ are essential and flexible enough to accommodate changing concepts of what is meant by care and suffering. Governments interpret the law through regulations that seek to describe in detail just what one should and should not do in specific circumstances. When drafting regulations, the aim should be to strike a balance between carrot and stick, while avoiding pettifogging intrusions on personal liberties and lengthy expositions of the blindingly obvious. The paper by Hepple and Gibbens on the ethical basis of UK Government (Defra) policy is refreshingly true to these aims. However, the main limitation of laws and regulations is that they can do little more than seek to ensure that we comply with current standards of acceptability. If we are to encourage the spread of higher standards of animal care than those permitted within the law, we need to harness the power of the people. In the final paper, John McInerney presents a cool economist’s evaluation of the things that determine the value we give to animals. He points out that every time we make a value judgement, we make an ethical decision and, in these matters, we are probably getting better. There have in recent years been some ­spectacular improvements in standards of animal care, and this has come about largely through the power of the people rather than through legislation. The ­markets (specifically the supermarkets) have responded to increased public demand for higher welfare (e.g. free range eggs) with an impressive range of measures and quality control procedures that are bringing about real improvements. Many of us for many years have been calling for justice for the animals. Progress has been slow and our ideals are probably unachievable, but now, more than ever before, I believe that we are limping in the right direction.

John Webster
University of Bristol


This book contains the extended proceedings of the First International Conference on Veterinary and Animal Ethics (ICVAE). The conference was held at the Royal College of Physicians, London, from 12 to 13 September 2011. It was organised by the Editors and sponsored by:

The Wellcome Trust

The Royal Veterinary College

The Animal Care Trust

Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, UFAW

The guest at the reception was Jim Paice, MP, Minister for Food and Farming, Defra, London.

In the original preamble, we said:

We have seen dramatic changes over the last few decades in the way we live alongside and interact with animals. Extraordinary advances have been made in our under­standing of animal behaviour, physiology and disease. Fifteen years ago, the first mammal was successfully cloned from an adult cell and Dolly the sheep was born. Advances in animal breeding have created dairy cows that can produce 50 litres of milk per day at a metabolic cost of five times maintenance (in comparison a Tour de France cyclist has a demand of 2.7 times maintenance). The selective breeding of chickens has created a modern broiler that has undergone a 300% increase in growth rate. Advances in veterinary surgery enable us to prolong animal life using heart by-pass procedures and renal transplants and to give routinely artificial joints to arthritic dogs.
   Yet there is an increasing sense that these developments have not been scrutinised ethically and that such review is overdue. This conference aims to present and encourage stimulating, challenging, thought-provoking and sometimes controversial discussion. We encourage you to participate in the debate wholeheartedly.
   The organisers recognise that we need to ask the right questions. We hope that the conference will agree on the questions, even if the answers are not to hand, yet. As starters, we suggest:

a. To whom does the veterinarian owe primary obligation: the owner or their animal?(Rollin 2006)
b. Have veterinarians lost their direction or in some way defaulted on their responsibility for animal welfare?
c. How should we decide when animal suffering is necessary?
d. Do animals have moral status and, if so, what should this mean?
e. How should a balance sheet of harms (to the animal) and benefits (usually to another species) be drawn up when the animal’s and human interests are in conflict?
f. Does quantity of life, as opposed to quality of life, matter to an animal?

The conference was separated into four sessions, each containing four or five papers. Questions and answers after each paper were recorded and transcribed and these are presented here too. In addition, each author has availed themselves of the opportunity to write a commentary after they had reviewed their paper and answers.

The debate included a debate with the motion ‘Is it better to have lived and lost than never to have lived at all?’ This was also recorded and transcribed. The ­conference programme described it thus: ‘Banner’s principles of animal ethics mix the approaches of duties-based ethics and consequence-based ethics. This ­pragmatic solution is often used when humans have to make difficult moral choices about the treatment of animals in our care. Often we have to weigh up issues relating to an animal’s quality and quantity of life. This balance lies at the heart of the moral – as well as the welfare – debate. During this discussion, delegates will consider a proposal, which can be interpreted variously, e.g. in terms of moral principles, specific issues such as population control, or illustrative examples.’ James Kirkwood, Bernard Rollin and James Yeates spoke to the motion before it was opened to ­registrants from the floor.

The Editors, 2012


Principles of Veterinary and Animal Ethics


University of Cambridge

The first session of this excellent symposium consisted of an eclectic group of lectures. The first was given by a historian, Abigail Woods; the next by a philosopher, Peter Sandøe; the third by a lawyer, Carolyn Johnston; and the final one by a veterinarian, Stephen May. The organiser, Christopher Wathes, had allowed 10 min for discussion after each lecture. I had worried that this might prove too much, especially as each speaker was going to be kept strictly to time. I thought that I might have to keep the session going with chairman-like remarks and contrived questions. I need not have been concerned. The audience were splendid and generated first-rate discussion. So much so, indeed, that hands were still being raised when the allotted time for discussion came to an end. This attentiveness by the audience to a broad range of issues augured well for the rest of the meeting.

In his book Man and the Natural World, Keith Thomas described how the moral concerns of those who had preached and pamphleteered against cruelty to animals had remained remarkably constant in England from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. Humans are fully entitled to domesticate animals and to kill them for food and clothing, but they are not to tyrannise or cause unnecessary suffering to ­animals. Domestic animals should be allowed food and rest and their deaths should be as painless as possible. Wild animals could be killed if they were needed for food or thought to be harmful. Even though game could be shot and vermin hunted, it was wrong to kill for mere pleasure.

Moral philosophers have made major contributions to the ethical problems raised by the treatment of animals. Even so, all their adopted positions require careful thought. Utilitarians often have problems trading off animal suffering against the benefits humans derive from animals because the costs and benefits of any action are not measured in the same terms. Those who confer rights on animals do not reveal what responsibilities animals have in return in the same way that humans have when they make an implicit contract in return for their rights. To my mind, even Bernard Rollin, who spoke in the second session, had too inflexible a notion of what animals should be allowed to experience. After all, adaptability is as much part of the animal’s telos as anything else it is adapted to do.

Those concerned with human medicine considered the ethical and legal issues raised by medical care long before the veterinarians thought formally about the ethics of their care of animals. Informed consent does not arise with animals but, even in humans, the issue has proved much more difficult to deal with than was at first thought. It is widely believed that the veterinarians should always have the welfare of animals at the forefront of their minds. The sheer expense of running an expensive practice does mean, however, that conflicts of interest arise. I felt therefore that this meeting, which started so well, was especially welcome in addressing the ethical problems faced by the veterinary profession.


The History of Veterinary Ethics in Britain, ca.1870–2000


Imperial College

Abstract: This paper examines the history of veterinary ethics in Britain over the period 1870–2000. It lays aside present-day normative conceptions of veterinary ethics in order to understand how veterinarians in the past perceived this issue and the social, economic and political factors that influenced their thinking. This analysis reveals the changing nature and scope of veterinary ethics. Prior to 1948, when anyone could legally practice veterinary surgery, veterinarians argued that treating animals ethically meant placing them under veterinary care: The interests of the veterinarian, owner, animal and society were best served by ensuring full veterinary discretion in treatment. The state acknowledged this claim with the passage of the 1948 Veterinary Surgeons Act, which restricted the practice of veterinary surgery to qualified veterinarians. Veterinary ethical priorities then shifted to professional conduct. However, later in the century, as the social and economic climate grew more hostile to professional power and privileges, and animal welfare moved up the political agenda, veterinarians began to recognise potential conflicts in interest between animals, owners, society and the profession, and to navigate them using new forms of ethical thinking. No longer concerned with extending their power to treat animals, they focussed on the appropriate exercise of that power within the clinical encounter. Previously regarded as a matter of individual clinical freedom, how veterinarians treated animals became an ethical problem that attracted both professional and public concern.

Keywords: Britain, conduct, concern, ethics, ewe, owner, veterinarian, veterinary ­ethics, veterinary history, veterinary surgeon, Veterinary Surgeons Act, welfare

1.1 Introduction

Veterinarians have always encountered ethical dilemmas in the course of their work. The nature of these dilemmas and how veterinarians perceived and responded to them has changed over time. Focusing on Britain, from the late nineteenth century to the very recent past, this paper provides a preliminary analysis of these changes. Its short length precludes a detailed examination of particular ethical issues. Rather, the aim is to identify broad trends in how veterinarians conceptualised and approached veterinary ethics in their practice and politics.

There is little existing literature on this topic. Histories of medical ethics do not examine the veterinary field (Rothman 1991; Cooter 2002) and veterinarians rarely feature in histories of animal ethics, which focus on key thinkers, scientists, politicians and campaigners (Kean 1998; Guerrini 2003; Boddice 2009). Tannenbaum’s (2005) textbook on veterinary ethics does not attempt a historical account, while Legood’s (2000) is restricted to the history of animal welfare. Only Rollin (2006) engages seriously with the history of veterinary ethics. His purpose is to show that veterinarians have an under-developed sense of ethics. Drawing on lived experience in the USA, he argues that veterinary ethical concerns were traditionally confined to matters of professional conduct. Only in the later 1970s and 1980s did veterinarians respond – albeit belatedly and reluctantly – to society’s emerging concern for animal ethics.

This paper presents a quite different account of the history of veterinary ethics. Using a standard historical method to analyse documentary evidence, it aims to situate and understand veterinary ethics within its historical context. Instead of hunting, retrospectively, for the roots of present-day ethical thinking, it adopts a prospective view, in which veterinary ethics is regarded as whatever veterinarians at the time believed it to be. Their views are not judged against present-day norms or ideals but rather explained in reference to the broader social, political and economic milieu.

This approach reveals that while, as Rollin (2006) argued, professional conduct was a major veterinary preoccupation, veterinarians also had a long history of concern for animal ethics. The nature of that concern and the contexts in which it was expressed changed over time, as did the solution proposed. The first half of the paper reveals how, from the late nineteenth century until the 1948 Veterinary Surgeons Act, veterinarians worked to convince animal owners and the state that treating animals ethically meant placing them under veterinary care and ensuring full veterinary discretion in treatment. In the immediate post-war years, this ambition was largely achieved and the veterinary focus shifted to professional ethics. Later in the century, animal ethics returned to the forefront of veterinary agendas. However, it was now approached in a quite different way. Veterinary priorities shifted away from winning the power to treat animals towards the appro­priate exercise of that power. Previously regarded as a matter of individual clinical freedom, how veterinarians treated animals within the clinical setting became an ethical problem that attracted both professional and public concern.

1.2 Professional Conduct and the Relief of Animal Suffering, 1870–1919

For most of the nineteenth century, the British veterinary profession was a small, insecure and highly fragmented body. More of a trade than a profession, its members received a very basic level of training at the London-based Royal Veterinary College (RVC, established 1791) or William Dick’s school in Edinburgh (1823), before entering into the highly competitive field of animal doctoring. Reformers battled to improve the status and income of the profession and achieved some success with the 1844 foundation by royal charter of a corporate body, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS). However, the RCVS was unable to abolish the competition posed by unqualified individuals, who often assumed the title ‘veterinary surgeon’ (Pattison 1984).

One strategy that veterinarians used to counter this competition was to assert their ethical superiority over unqualified men. They claimed that the latter inflicted cruelty on animals, while they were expert in relieving it. They carved out roles as expert witnesses in prosecutions for animal cruelty, participated in the 1870s ­campaign against vivisection and gave evidence on proposed legislation to improve the welfare of animals in transit. Supported by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), they argued that much animal suffering could be prevented by substituting veterinary for lay intervention (Editorial 1876; Walley 1876; Poyser 1877; Discussion 1881; Harrison 1973).

If treating animals ethically meant placing them under veterinary care, then to encourage such behaviour on the part of owners and the state, the profession had to conduct itself in a particular way. Animal ethics and professional ethics were therefore linked. Using the medical profession as a model, veterinary reformers urged veterinarians to adopt gentlemanly habits, abandon trade-like practices such as horse dealing, and charge properly for services rather than relying on drug sales. Veterinarians should also improve their dress, stop advertising and behave considerately and courteously to fellow veterinarians instead of stealing their cases and badmouthing them to clients. Such reforms would enable the public to differentiate qualified men from fraudulent quacks (Woods & Matthews 2010).

These efforts met with only partial success. On the one hand, they helped to persuade Parliament to pass the 1881 Veterinary Surgeons Act. This gave veterinarians a monopoly over the title ‘veterinary surgeon’ and also formalised professional ethics by creating a register from which veterinarians could be removed for ‘disgraceful professional conduct’. On the other hand, unqualified practice remained legal and some animal owners and local authorities continued to preferentially employ unqualified animal doctors (Woods & Matthews 2010). The grassroots of the profession interpreted this outcome in different ways. Some claimed that the standards of professional conduct were still too low for veterinarians to win respectable employment. Others, practising in rural areas, complained that RCVS strictures on advertising had left them unable to compete effectively with unqualified healers (Dellagana 1900–1901; Onlooker 1905–1906). The RCVS’s sympathies lay with the former view. Throughout the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, it sought to set distance between the veterinary profession and other animal healers by policing professional conduct and prosecuting those who illegally assumed the title veterinary surgeon (Bullock 1927).

Meanwhile, veterinary attention was drawn to questions of animal ethics, such as the docking of horses’ tails. Justified on the basis that it prevented horses from getting their tails caught under the reins, docking was a routine operation usually performed without anaesthesia by veterinarians, farriers and horse dealers. During the 1880s, the RSPCA supported by RCVS President, George Fleming, proclaimed docking a cruel act, performed only for reasons of fashion and monetary gain. In the ensuing intra-professional debate, majority opinion held that docking should be judged on the basis of utility, not sentimentality. Veterinarians were the people best qualified to make this judgement and to perform the operation effectively and without cruelty (Editorial 1883, 1884; Correspondence and reports 1884). Consequently, the RSPCA had no reason to ‘plunge promiscuously into prosecutions, seriously interfering with rights and privileges which certainly ought to be enjoyed by respectable veterinary surgeons’ (Briggs 1885).1

This belief that placing animals under veterinary care guaranteed their ethical treatment paralleled doctors’ concurrent claims about the ethical status of the doctor–patient relationship, which they invoked in an attempt to defend medical autonomy against threats from the laymen and the state (Cooter 2002). It manifested repeatedly in subsequent veterinary discussions. For example in 1910, when the RSPCA alleged widespread cruelty in the export of decrepit horses, members of the Central Veterinary Society concluded that the best means of preventing cruelty was to appoint veterinarians to supervise the trade (Central Veterinary Society 1909–1910).

The same thinking featured in discussions on the 1912 Animals (Anaesthetics) Bill ‘to make further provision for the prevention of cruelty to animals’. Brought before Parliament by Walter Guinness, MP, this sought to make anaesthetics compulsory for certain veterinary operations (Parliamentary 1912–1913).2 While recognising that the bill would enable veterinarians to override owners’ resistance to anaesthesia, to the benefit of their patients, leading veterinarians nevertheless opposed it. This was partly because its lay promoters had failed to seek veterinary input. Also, the bill would constrain veterinary freedom of action, and because it did not restrict anaesthetic use to veterinarians, it would enable untrained men to attempt it, resulting in poorly anaesthetised animals and much suffering (Correspondence 1912–1913; Hobday 1913–1914). These complaints had little effect, and in 1919, after several revisions to the schedule of operations, the bill became law (Memo 1918–1919). Although viewed as an overall advance in humanity to animals, leading veterinary surgeon and future RVC principal, Frederick Hobday, was not alone in feeling that, ‘It rather galls on the veterinary surgeon to be told that he is not to have it left to his discretion in all operations and we are apparently told that by the laity’. The best interests of the animal were served by placing it under veterinary care and granting veterinarians full discretion in treatment (Hobday 1919–1920).

1.3 The Ethical Nature of Veterinary Work, 1919–1948

Similar views of veterinary ethics were expressed repeatedly during the inter-war period as veterinarians sought to carve out new niches in agriculture and small animal medicine. These efforts were stimulated by threats to traditional sources of employment. Horse numbers were declining with the rise of mechanised transport; scientific thinking had shifted to favour preventive and hygienic measures over bleeding, firing and drugging; and veterinarians faced increasing competition from patent medicine vendors, whose advertising practices were not constrained by professional ethics (Onlooker 1905–1906; Woods 2007).3

Veterinarians’ growing exposure to farm animals caused them to reflect on the ethics of new production practices that arose in response to the deepening agricultural depression. In dairy farming – which proved popular due to its immunity from foreign competition – producers established so-called ‘intensive’ units in suburban areas, where cows were kept indoors, fed on imported cattle cake and replaced with new purchases. Elsewhere, low cereal prices encouraged the production of pigs within indoor ‘factory-style’ units. Veterinarians often moralised about these practices and their implications for livestock health (Woods 2007, 2012). Typical comments included those of practising veterinarian, Lesley Pugh, and pig specialist, D. J. Anthony. Pugh complained that ‘Too often the cow becomes a mere machine for the provision of milk. As a result of our ignorance of the machinery we fail sooner or later to maintain its efficiency. The machine fails and sterility ensues’ (Pugh 1924). Anthony criticised the growing tendency ‘to regard the pig as more of a machine than a live animal’. Warning of a vengeful nature who ‘exacts a penalty for any violation of her laws’, he argued that producers ‘must try to adopt scientific methods while still having due regard for Mother Nature’ (Anthony 1940). The proposed solution to all of these problems was for veterinarians to play a more extensive role in the prevention and management of livestock disease.

Similar thinking can be identified in the profession’s concurrent conflict with the People’s Dispensary of Sick Animals (PDSA). Founded in 1917, this charitable organisation offered free treatment to the sick animals of the poor. Treatment was performed by ‘skilled experts’, who were laymen trained through lectures and experience in the PDSA’s hospital. As the charity grew wealthier and its network of clinics and hospitals extended, it attracted criticism from veterinarians keen to increase their own activities in pet medicine. Decrying the sentimentalism of the PDSA’s promoters and advertising the profession’s own tradition of providing cheap treatment to poor clients, veterinarians argued that they were best able to judge whether an animal was suffering and whether its owner merited charity. They also argued that on moral grounds, all animals deserved the best possible care, which meant placing them under expert veterinarians, not untrained quacks. Such claims, which overlooked the in-depth training received by PDSA officers, won little public support during the inter-war years (Gardiner 2010).

1.4 The Eclipse of Animal Ethics, 1948–1975

The first half of this paper has shown that prior to World War II, veterinary reflections on ethical issues ranging from professional conduct to the treatment of animals centred on the need to place animals under veterinary care and to ensure full discretion in treatment. These actions would not only serve the interests of the animal but also those of the owner, state and society. This thinking was shaped by the profession’s overlapping ambitions to relieve animal suffering, overcome market competition and extend the scope, autonomy and status of veterinary work.

In the immediate post-war decades, these ambitions were largely achieved. New confidence in science (which had played a crucial role in winning the war), respect for professional expertise and the vital veterinary contribution to feeding the nation in wartime facilitated the passage of the 1948 Veterinary Surgeons Act, which made it illegal for unqualified persons to practice veterinary surgery. This resolved the long battle with the PDSA in the profession’s favour (Gardiner 2010). In 1954, veterinary dissatisfaction with anaesthetics legislation was overcome by the passage of a new act of Parliament. Promoted by the British Veterinary Association (BVA), this granted veterinarians full discretion over anaesthetic agents and techniques (Editorial 1954).

Veterinary services to farmers were also increasing on account of the post-war emphasis placed on domestic food production. In helping farmers to tackle disease, veterinarians enabled them to develop more efficient, intensive systems of production, as demanded by Government policy. Public criticism of these systems erupted in 1964 with the publication of Animal Machines, Ruth Harrison’s expose of factory farming (Harrison 1964). Veterinary reactions to changing agricultural practices reveal a shift in their ethical thinking since the inter-war years. Leaving behind their earlier concerns about going against nature, many argued that if veterinarians were to maintain their ‘rightful place’ on the farm, they had to embrace and assist intensification (Hignett 1956; Sainsbury 1965). Dismissing lay criticisms of factory farming as ‘sentimental anthropomorphism’, they asserted the profession’s moral responsibility for and expertise in humane practices (BVA 1965). In defining health as a state of ‘maximum economic production commensurate with economy and humanity’ (Editorial 1969) and equating disease with poor welfare (BVA 1965), veterinarians proclaimed their ability to make livestock farming both productive and ethical.

Veterinarians continued to equate the ethical care of animals with veterinary care. This view shaped their claims that veterinarians were the experts best qualified to oversee and regulate the use of animals in experiments (The Littlewood Committee 1964–1965). It also caused them to affix the label ‘ethical’ to pharmaceutical companies that restricted drug sales to veterinarians. ‘Unethical’ companies sold direct to farmers. These labels disappeared when the 1968 Medicines Act granted veterinarians privileges in the sale and supply of drugs (MacKellar 1963).

As the scope, autonomy and status of veterinary work increased and the spectre of unqualified competition disappeared, veterinarians ceased to proclaim an ethical ‘deficit’ in the treatment of animals. At the same time, their perceived need to justify the privileges awarded to them under the 1948 Veterinary Surgeons Act pushed professional conduct to the forefront of veterinary ethical concerns. In 1951, the RCVS published its first Guide to Veterinary Professional Conduct (RCVS 1951). This contained headings such as: ‘the status and dignity of the veterinary profession’ (which laid down strictures on advertising), ‘relationships between practitioners’ (which emphasised honour, faith and mutual trust) and ‘relationships between veterinarians and laypersons’ (laymen must not carry out veterinary work).

The term ‘ethics’ did not appear until the 1961 edition of the guide, which defined unethical behaviour as that ‘undesirable and unbecoming to a professional man’ (RCVS 1961). Subsequent updates, which appeared every 3 years, reveal the emergence of new ethical concerns thrown up by the changing nature of veterinary employment, practice organisation and therapeutic interventions. By the early 1970s, the code had grown to encompass standards for veterinary hospitals, claims to specialisation, relationships between veterinarians in practice and in industry, and guidance on employing veterinary nurses. This period also saw administrative changes, introduced under the 1966 Veterinary Surgeons Act, to the RCVS’s procedure for disciplining members who infringed the code (RCVS 1961, 1964, 1967, 1971).

1.5 The Reshaping of Veterinary Ethical Thought, 1975–2000

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, the professional, political and public consensus that managing animals ethically meant placing them under ­veterinary care began to fracture, and new questions arose about the conduct of that care. Formerly, clinical intervention had been viewed as a private veterinary matter: the veterinarian’s professional expertise and code of conduct meant that he or she could be trusted to act in the interests of all parties. Now, however, there was growing recognition within and outwith the profession of the potential conflicts of interest between veterinarians, animals, owners, society and state. This led to new public, political and professional scrutiny of veterinary conduct both within and beyond the clinical setting.

Commentators past and present often link these developments to the operation of financial constraints in the care of large animals, and conversely, to the lack of such constraints in small animal practice, a rapidly expanding field in which major technical advances offered many new prospects for treatment. In both cases, ethical reflection was required to decide what forms of veterinary intervention were necessary and justifiable (Orpin 1984; News 2010). This argument has strength. However, it overlooks the fact that economics have always constrained farmers’ actions to a greater or lesser extent and that many new clinical techniques were developed prior to the 1970s without inspiring this kind of ethical scrutiny. In order to make sense of the late twentieth century reshaping of veterinary ethical thought, it is necessary to move beyond the clinical encounter, to explore its broader social and political contexts.

From the 1970s, trust in all the professions diminished and their privileges, practices and expertise were subjected to challenge. The origins of this challenge lay in the 1960s and 1970s counter-culture, the women’s and civil rights movements, and the rise of consumerism and the free market (Cooter 2002). While the medical profession was singled out for particular criticism (Szasz 1961; Foucault 1965; Freidson 1970; Illich 1975), veterinarians did not escape the fallout. The first direct threat came from the Monopoly Commission’s 1976 report on the veterinary profession. One of a set of government-commissioned enquiries into the professions, it claimed that the RCVS’s ‘ethical’ restrictions on advertising contravened the public interest by withholding vital information from customers and preventing competition between practices (News and reports 1976). For RCVS registrar, Alistair Porter, the report signalled that the state no longer trusted the profession to manage its own affairs and to act in the interests of its clients (Porter 1976).

Most veterinarians did not want to permit advertising. They viewed it as a commercial practice at odds with their professional image (Comment 1984). However, in 1984 the RCVS was forced to lift its restrictions. By then, consumer bodies had begun to attack veterinary fees, and the media to scrutinise the profession’s privileges. Animal owners were demanding higher levels of veterinary competence, ethical conduct and value for money (Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons 1984; Comment 1986; Cripps 1986; Napley 1987) and were ‘fast moving away from the attitude that the word of the professional man … has to be accepted without question’ (Comment 1985). This shift was reflected in their increasing employment of laymen to perform traditionally ‘veterinary’ tasks like foot trimming and equine dentistry (Comment 1995).