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August 19, 2009

AVMA Off Course From Veterinarian's Oath

The HSUS doesn’t shrink from its responsibility to take on industries that cause or defend animal abuse, including trophy hunting groups like the Safari Club or factory farming advocates like the United Egg Producers. But it’s startling when we have to call out groups that should stand in the forefront of animal protection but are part of the problem when it comes to the mistreatment of animals.

That is, sadly, the case with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). People rightly look to their individual veterinarians as experts on animal welfare. They take an oath to alleviate animal suffering and in their professional work or in their volunteer efforts, they nobly fulfill that oath on a daily basis. Yet it’s been our experience that AVMA policies are out of step with a large share of veterinarians and the organization typically takes unfriendly positions on many of the major animal welfare questions of the day.

Chickens in battery cage
© Compassion Over Killing

We’ve known for a long time about the AVMA’s push to legalize the slaughter of horses for human consumption. This week, the AVMA issued a report attacking the prestigious Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which had expressed support for a variety of important reforms in the realm of industrial agriculture, including federal legislation to end the widespread, routine use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics on factory farms. This misuse of antibiotics has been proven to increase the risk of antibiotic resistance in human medicine. It is estimated that 70 percent of all antimicrobials used are fed to animals on factory farms.

Funded by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Pew Commission’s blue ribbon panel included a diverse set of experts, including a former Secretary of Agriculture, former Dean of the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine, the former governor of Kansas, two ranchers, a bioethicist, and the Dean of the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health. They studied issues related to farm animal production for 2.5 years, and based on the science, reached several unanimous recommendations for improvement.

The Pew Commission endorsed legislation to phase out the use of antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes on factory farms. The American Medical Association and dozens of other major public health groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization support the legislation because they fear the consequences of agribusiness’s misuse of antibiotics to keep animals in overcrowded, inhumane, and often unsanitary conditions. But the AVMA is staunchly opposed to the bill.

At the AVMA, we’ve seen time and again how the livestock veterinarians, such as the swine and poultry veterinarians, control the thinking of the organization. These vets typically work for agribusiness and they embrace the mindset of the industry, including the view that animals are just production units. And unfortunately, it’s standard for the AVMA to stand in the way of sensible reforms in the realm of industrial agriculture.

We fought for years to ban the abuse of downer cows—those too sick or injured to stand or walk on their own—by the livestock industry, and the AVMA stood on the sidelines as we sought to advocate for humane handling of these animals and better food safety procedures. It took our investigation at the Westland/Hallmark slaughter plant to finally overcome the objections of agribusiness and to see a no-downer policy adopted.

Downer cow
© The HSUS

Just a few years ago, the AVMA supported the egg industry’s routine practice of starving egg-laying hens for days on end to extend the laying cycle of the birds. It wasn’t until a veterinary group aligned with the poultry industry, the American Association of Avian Pathologists, introduced a resolution in 2004 that the AVMA changed its position on the subject. 

Similarly, for years the AVMA supported confining calves in veal crates so narrow they couldn’t even turn around for months at a time. After the American Veal Association passed a resolution in 2007 urging the veal industry to stop using veal crates, only then did the AVMA change its policy. In both cases, the AVMA showed no leadership on animal welfare, but simply followed the lead of industry.

The AVMA also fought a 2002 Florida ballot measure to require that breeding pigs have enough room to turn around and extend their limbs. The measure overwhelmingly passed, and AVMA later changed its position on gestation crates to one of neutrality. Five other states have since passed laws banning gestation crates, yet the AVMA still doesn’t oppose the crates, despite an abundance of scientific evidence supporting our position.

There’s also overwhelming scientific evidence that force-feeding ducks and geese for foie gras is detrimental to their welfare—and even the AVMA admits that such force-feeding causes lipidosis (illness in the liver). Yet the AVMA still refuses to oppose such animal cruelty and remains neutral on the topic.

In 2008, Californians overwhelmingly passed the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, which phases out extreme forms of farm animal confinement. The California Veterinary Medical Association—to its credit—endorsed the measure, yet the AVMA refused to support it. This led CVMA’s then-president Dr. Jeff Smith to pen an op-ed about why CVMA voted to support the measure. Dr. Smith wisely wrote, “When one acknowledges that these positions are clearly not defensible from a welfare perspective, the profession needs to say so instead of being deemed irrelevant or taken kicking and screaming to the eventual proper ethical outcome.”

Vets should be in the forefront of animal protection, and they are at the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association and other more progressive veterinary associations. But at the AVMA, it’s too often essentially an echo chamber for industry on the major animal welfare questions of the day. If it’s an issue like animal fighting, where no vets work for the industry, the AVMA takes the right position. But if vets are in the employ of industry, the group then typically trots out the industry viewpoint.

We hope that the younger generation of vets usher in changes in this ossified organization. We’d like some day to stand shoulder to shoulder with the AVMA on matters relating to the defense of animals. But too often, we stand on opposite sides of the major policy debates for animal welfare in America.

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