The veterinary profession needs to fundamentally question how we see the relationship between animals and human society. Can we reconcile the principle of animal welfare being paramount with the role of animals in providing for the needs of human society - be it food, sport, companionship or research? Are vets there to ensure the welfare of animals, or to support the use of animals in providing for human needs?
The answer to this question affects every aspect of day-to-day practice. Placing the welfare of pets first can mean disregarding the beliefs and concerns of the owner, if these are incongruent with what is deemed best for the animal. As veterinary practice becomes more centred on animal welfare, we risk losing our compassion and respect for the people we deal with.
When animal welfare is paramount it also becomes increasingly difficult to justify vivisection. However, restricting animal research undermines the evidence base of our profession and may slow the pace of medical advance, potentially prolonging the suffering of human and domestic animal populations.
This leads to a second question: what importance do we assign to evidence-based medicine? If we are serious about it then we need to take a robust stance on issues such as homeopathy. One of the roles of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons should be to protect the public from costly treatments for which there is no evidence of efficacy – essentially quackery. To date there has been a reluctance to make a judgement on unproven ‘alternative’ treatments, lending them a legitimacy they don’t deserve.
I hope that in tackling these questions we will see the emergence of a confident profession that is proud both of its foundations in sound science and its role in supporting the use of animals in order to promote human welfare.