Veterinary Ethics

It is a self-evident truth that wherever there is consciousness, there is some degree of suffering, whether that pain be physical or psychological[1]. Consequently, the study of ethics is an examination of the rights and welfare of all living things which possess consciousness. Pertinent to this arena of veterinary medicine, ethics deals with an ethical code that is the construct of centuries of animal welfare experience.

  • Animal rights
  • Pain management
  • Euthanasia
  • Ethical code

An individual’s outlook on life varies widely from disinterest of animal welfare to passionate support. Whether they are a veterinarian or not does preclude having issues about what rights we afford an animal. Some veterinarians are pro-welfare activists while others work in research laboratories where thousands of animals are used annually for experiments. The rights of an animal is affected by whether it is classified as a domestic pet or production animals. Therefore, the use of the animal (e.g. pet, work, food production or research) dictates its legal status. Although the use of animals in research and teaching are under constant scrutiny and the laws regulating their use clearly spelled out, their life is far different from that of a domestic pet. For example, a companion cat may receive the best veterinary attention and pain management to prolong its life, yet another cat living in a research cattery is subject to terminal surgical or medical experimentation before euthanasia. Here is a case of two individuals of the same species having different legal rights.

The British philosopher and activist Jeremy Bentham wrote in 1781 about animal rights:

‘The day has been, I grieve it to say in many places it is not yet past, in which the greater part of the species, under the denomination of slaves, have been treated … upon the same footing as … animals are still. The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withheld from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognised, that the number of legs, the thickness of the skin, or the length of the tail, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps, the faculty for discourse? The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ Nor, ‘Can they talk?’ But ‘Can they suffer?’ Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being? The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes…’

Contemporary philosophers such as Peter Singer suggest that any animal is capable of suffering, and therefore deserves moral rights[2][3]. In his book Writings on an Ethical Life, Singer says that ethics comes down to four basic assumptions:

  • Pain is bad, no matter what species suffers this pain
  • Humans are not the only species capable of feeling pain or of suffering
  • When we consider how serious it is to take life, we should consider not the race, breed or species (including human) but at its own desires about continuing to live or the kind of life it is capable of living.
  • We are responsible not only for what we do but for what we could have prevented. Knowing that we could intervene in other’s suffering (including an animal) and not doing so is unethical[4].

Nearly all the external signs that lead us to infer pain in other humans can be seen in all other species of mammals and birds. The behavioural signs include writhing, facial contortions, moaning, yelping or other forms of calling, attempts to avoid the source of the pain, appearance of fear at the prospect of its repetition, and so on. In addition, we know that these animals have nervous systems very like ours, which respond physiologically like ours do when the animal is in circumstances in which we would feel pain: an initial rise of blood pressure, dilated pupils, perspiration, an increased pulse rate, and, if the stimulus continues, a fall in blood pressure. Although human beings have a more developed cerebral cortex than other animals, this part of the brain is concerned with thinking functions rather than with basic impulses, emotions (anxiety and depression), behaviour and feelings. Peter Singer in Animal Liberation describes how:

We also know that the nervous systems of other animals were not artificially constructed – as a robot might be artificially constructed – to mimic the pain behaviour of humans. The nervous systems of animals evolved as our own did, and in fact the evolutionary history of human beings and other animals, especially mammals, did not diverge until the central features of our nervous systems were already in existence. A capacity to feel pain obviously enhances a species’ prospects for survival, since it causes members of the species to avoid sources of injury. It is surely unreasonable to suppose that nervous systems that are virtually identical physiologically, have a common origin and a common evolutionary function, and result in similar forms of behaviour in similar circumstances should actually operate in an entirely different manner on the level of subjective feelings…

Any being that has an interest in not suffering deserves to have that interest taken into account. And any animal who acts to avoid pain can be thought to have just such an interest. Richard Serjeant in The Spectrum of Pain insists that any argument which says that animals feel less because they are lower animals is an absurdity; it can easily be shown that many of their senses are far more acute that ours – visual acuity in certain birds, hearing in most wild animals, and touch in others; these animals depend more than we do today on the sharpest possible awareness of a hostile environment. Apart from the complexity of the cerebral cortex (which does not directly perceive pain) their nervous systems are almost identical to humans and their reactions to pain remarkably similar, though lacking (so far as we know) the philosophical and moral overtones. The emotional element is all too evident, mainly in the form of fear and anger[5].

Singer once remarked that ‘the basic principle of equality does not require equal or identical treatment; it requires equal consideration. Equal consideration for different beings may lead to different treatment and different rights.’ He explains that since dogs cannot vote, it is meaningless to give them such rights. Likewise, since men cannot have an abortion, it is meaningless to give them this right. What is important with giving animals rights is to ensure that their basic rights to life; namely, food, companionship, and a stress-free and pain-free lifestyle is the first requirement. Such a basic right is ignored for many factory and feed-lot animals. The principle of equality must be applied across the species (including humans). Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the American Declaration of independence, opposed slavery for this reason, even though he was unable to free himself from keeping slaves.

‘Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I myself have entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to them by nature, and to find that they are on a par with ourselves… but whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the property or persons of others.’

Further reading

  • Anatomy of the ego
  • Anatomy of the mind


  1. ↑ Euclid, J 2010 Pers comm
  2. ↑ Singer, P. (1990). Animal Liberation, 2nd Edition, New York: New York Review
  3. ↑ Singer, P. (1993). Practical Ethics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
  4. ↑ Singer, P. (2000) Writings on an ethical life. HarperCollins. London
  5. ↑ Sarjeant, R. (1969) The Spectrum of Pain. Hart Davis, London, p. 72.

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