Monday, December 17, 2012

Protect Animals, Protect Yourself: New Role of Veterinarians in Animal Advocacy

When working in an animal shelter or humane agency, it's difficult to make your only concern the animals in front of you.  It's nearly impossible to toil 9-5, go home, see a new set of afflicted animals the next day and not make connections between them.  Individuals who do this work aren't only concerned with animals they happen to be helping at the moment; they also care about the bigger societal failings that created those animals' problems. That's why so many in these fields write op-eds, lobby, or engage in humane education.  While it's important they take personal steps to avoid burnout, working on the big picture is the most reasonable way to attempt long-term elimination of the problems that ultimately get unloaded on them in the workplace.

Although the average private practice veterinarian doesn’t have infinite time outside work to engage in animal advocacy, it's unsettling how little our profession acknowledges that our daily stresses and obstacles also stem from the bigger societal view towards animals.  Although veterinarians have 8 years of higher education and the same level of scientific training as human physicians, we also have a burden that limits our efficacy; our patients are currently regarded by much of society as inferior lives to be exploited, abused, neglected or thrown away. 

What an obvious contradiction. What an overt problem!  We have CT scans, MRI's, phacoemulsification, and even prosthetic limbs for the luckiest of these animals.  Yet, how many times does the general public still display lack of basic respect for animals, or deem their suffering as tolerable?  How many times do we recommend spay/neuter to no avail?  How many times do we urge against patronizing puppy mills but still fail to curb this epidemic?  How often, for the sake of convenience, are we asked to medically neglect or physically modify other people's animals in ways we never would our own?  Keep in mind that vets don’t even see the worst cases out there; someone at least cared enough about the animals in front of us to take them to a veterinarian.  Billions of animals in our society never even have a home or the freedom to turn around, let alone a veterinary exam.

I hate to see this profession exemplify claims that society is surging ahead with scientific advancement while vegetating in a state of ethical defectiveness.  This is why it’s imperative that change happen  outside the exam room.  As a profession, we should be at the forefront of promoting and endorsing proposed measures to protect animals' basic interests.  However, our veterinary medical associations and societies have an alarming track record of going out of their way to thwart or avoid endorsing even the most modest animal welfare legislation.  They do this so as not to upset allied industries like the giant agribusiness sector or make enemies of special-interest groups like the American Kennel Club (AKC). 

Busy veterinarians who want to speak out against puppy mills or gestation crates, or speak in favor of properly enforced animal cruelty laws, need not necessarily huff and puff and blow up 1000 balloons for the sake of it.  But my hope is that those veterinarians will try to blow up one or two balloons per year, when the opportunity presents itself.  At the very least, I hope they will not pop each existing balloon simply because their old-school veterinary medical associations are irrationally afraid of balloons.  If vets don’t help lobby for better laws, write to local papers, or give their signatures to campaigns, we can’t complain about all the problems animals face that cannot be cured with medicine.

I speak to members of a profession with one of the highest rates of compassion fatigue and suicide when I say that overall, better lives and more respect for animals also means a better life and more respect for your profession.  It means better public embracing of your best medicine.

It's been two years since the Veterinarian's Oath was revised to emphasize our role in animal welfare and the prevention--not just the alleviation--of animal suffering.  Let's ensure those aren’t empty words.

Let’s get to work!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

And Now . . .The Alert on "Raw Deal" Diets

Well, loyal readers, as many of you know I’ve been taking an extended hiatus from Ethical Veterinarian to focus my limited free time on more far-reaching writing.  However, the raw food “controversy” has caused such repeated invasions of my head that I just need to get this out of my system.

In case you’re unaware, in a recent issue of JAVMA and on its website, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) stated its complete opposition to the practice of feeding raw food diets to cats and dogs.  It instituted a "policy" (i.e. a non-enforceable, media attention-grabber) against raw food.

Since then, I have heard multiple veterinarians using this declaration as a sort of "scientific manifesto" to insist that raw food is an unhealthy choice that places pets in peril.

First, I must state that the AVMA is not the hub of a scientific dictatorship.  Rather, it is a political trade organization, one of whose primary purposes is to protect the economic interests of veterinarians.  So when it declines taking a stance on dozens of crucial animal health/welfare issues but tries to intervene on an individual's choice of pet food, you’d be remiss to think there aren't huge economic factors at play.  After all, non-raw pet food is a multi-billion dollar industry in this country, and the veterinary profession is undeniably wrapped up in it.

The most dangerous thing about raw food is not bacterial contamination ... rather, it's that its emerging lack of association with the most common pet diseases is making mainstream pet food look awfully suspect. Uh-oh. I am not saying that a raw food diet cannot have its own possible adverse consequences--improper or deficient formulation, bacterial contamination and uncommon zoonosis among them.  We should inform our clients of these risks just as we should inform them of the risks associated with any pet food.  However, the mass-produced status quo food format presents an overwhelmingly larger number of long-term risks in addition to possible contamination.  Remember the aflatoxins and the recent dry food Salmonellosis outbreak?  As of 2006, not a single confirmed case of human Salmonellosis had been linked to raw food pet diets.  As for the risk of zoonosis, sharing one's home with a pet in general causes the chance of contracting all kinds of zoonotic diseases to skyrocket--is the CDC issuing a "policy" stating that it is against people having pets?  Nope.  It wouldn't do that when some cautionary, circumstantial advice would suffice.

We are being fooled when we believe the hype that the raw food diet is some nutritional or public health crisis worthy of this attempted national stop-order.  More importantly, we're being fooled when we believe that the mainstream, “scientific” food format stocked by nearly every veterinary hospital in America doesn’t have known adverse consequences which are worse, at least for the animals eating it.  Worse, mind you, but not stopping the veterinary profession from whole-heartedly endorsing those foods!

One of the main reasons I find the AVMA’s singling out of the raw food diet on so-called "scientific" grounds so obviously self-interested is because there are scientifically proven, disastrous consequences to feeding pets (especially cats) grain-laden dry food, yet this is what pet food manufacturers and most veterinarians, including Board-certified nutritionists, continue to push on consumers and clients...usually without any mention of risk.

Dry food is convenient, has consumer appeal and it's culturally ingrained, but is it not a continual source of disease? As one example, felines rely on their food, not direct lapping of water, for a huge portion of their moisture intake--domestication did not magically undo this any more than it obliterated any number of feline instincts.  Basic veterinary knowledge, combined with clinical experience, should tip off any veterinarian that dry food is the biggest contributor to feline urinary tract disease.  Insufficient dietary moisture and/or increased urine alkalinity result in increased likelihood of all the following: urinary tract infections, urethral mucus plugs, crystalluria, uroliths, potentially-fatal urinary blockages and even renal failure.  And as for Feline Idiopathic cystitis? Humans who have the similar condition report that stress can exacerbate the condition, but they also state that symptoms lessen greatly or disappear with dietary modifications.

If we want to talk about diet as it pertains to the big issue of animal welfare, the same example of feline urinary disease appliesMillions of cats have been relinquished to animal shelters due to reported inappropriate elimination.  It is the number one reason why cats are relinquished annually, outside of human factors (moving, etc.)  Why is this significant?  Because veterinary research has shown over and over that the highest incidence of lower urinary tract disease and inappropriate urination occurs in cats that eat solely dry food.  (For those looking for veterinary diet-speak, cats eating Royal Canin SO canned have a significantly lower relapse rate of crystalluria/urolithiasis than cats eating SO dry.  Format is important!) Even if dry food only contributed to, say, a fraction of the aforementioned shelter relinquishments, we've likely sent millions of cats to statistically probable euthanasia in part due to a "veterinary-approved" diet format.  Will the AVMA ever spotlight that? And what about the hundreds of thousands of male cats who die excruciating deaths from blocked bladders?  If I were a cat, I'd take a slight risk of Campylobacter over that, any day.

So why do so many veterinarians become INCENSED about raw food in particular but fail to notice the killer-filler ingredients in Purina, Eukanuba/Iams, and Science Diet foods, including the worshipped prescription (or as I like to call them, “reaction”) diets?  It’s at least partially because many vets take their nutrition cues from trade organizations and pet food manufacturers.  Nestle-Purina, keep in mind, is the maker of the worst kinds of dog junk food imaginable, including the ever-popular Beggin’ Strips, but simultaneously is a scientific authority (????), with a prescription diet to target canine diabetes?  Surely, I'm not the only one who finds this ridiculous. Are the two sides of Purina competing against each other the way Verizon and Verizon Wireless do?  Or is it perhaps just cashing in on every market?  Dry and/or grain-filled manufactured diets, including those in vet hospitals, are what I'm dubbing "Raw Deal" diets.

The effects of different diets are clinically obvious, if we pay attention to our own patients and clinical practice rather than just hand-me-down, angled information from entities that are clearly biased by both culture and industry.  While defensive hackles are up, I'll say it's embarrassing to the veterinary profession that non-veterinarians are applying common sense and achieving better results in pet nutrition.  I do indeed have many intelligent, health-conscious clients without a veterinary degree, let alone a Board-certification in veterinary nutrition, who have figured out what will and will not keep their pets healthiest.

Like it or not, the best-performing pet foods on the market are not formulated by veterinary-affiliated brands.  An increasing number of veterinarians are attesting to this; they're aware of the pet food fiasco.  They have drastically reduced and in many cases eliminated urinary problems, periodontal disease, inflammatory bowel disease, insulin-resistant diabetes and many other illnesses in their patients … simply by informing clients they’re better off avoiding the mainstream food format.

I don’t believe in cure-alls, but I do believe in cure-mosts.  Feeding an animal a diet closest to what it is biologically designed to consume, within our most reasonable means, is the most no-brainer “cure-most” out there.  For some people, that may mean filler-less canned food, but for the more ambitious it could mean a raw diet.

For the record, AVMA (because I know you read my blog), you have alienated a subset of the profession's most informed, brightest and most ahead-of-the-curve veterinarians with another industry-pleasing, maintain-the-status quo position.

To my fellow veterinarians, I would like to say: please be scientific and experiment ... with different ideas. Different ideas can be life savers.  And the ultimate cure lies in the cause.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Calling all NY Animal Advocates and Animal Care Professionals

Animal advocates often say that our role is to speak for those who have no voice.  In the case of enacting legislation to prohibit devocalization, we couldn't mean it more literally.

Devocalization of dogs and cats is the deliberate cutting of vocal cords in order to eliminate or stifle the animal's voice.  One of the most appalling and irresponsible of all convenience surgeries, it comes with a relatively high risk of life-altering (even life-threatening) physical and behavioral complications.  However, this has not stopped some veterinarians from performing the procedure when clients request it.
In 2010, the state of Massachusetts passed legislation prohibiting the de-barking/de-meowing of dogs and cats.  At this moment, a similar ban is pending in New York that would prohibit devocalization except where used to treat a physical ailment.

Please take a minute to watch this video, courtesy of New York Against Devocalization:

As with all humane laws, even though the lack of ethics seems obvious, there is nonetheless a lobby against this ban.  It is fueled not only by the breeders who commonly seek the procedure to minimize noise at facilities where large numbers of dogs are kept. Hoarders, animal collectors, dog fighters and others who wish to keep their dogs quiet and "hidden" may seek devocalization. Still other clients request devocalization as a misguided way of dealing with a lack of training.

One contrived stance taken by the opposition is that most veterinarians do not perform this procedure, and therefore it is not worth the bother of enacting a law.  Obviously, the majority of people do not commit rapes or assaults either, but the nature of the actions has still made these illegal.

As always, there are also veterinarians - even those who would never ethically perform this procedure themselves - who are influenced by the culture of veterinary trade organizations and instantly reject any proposed societal law that encroaches on a veteinarian's decision-making, even if it is unethical decision-making.  New York City veterinarian Dr. Ina Obernesser hit the nail on the head when she stated:

"Those who advocate for access to devocalization may say the proposed law encroaches on their rights. However, in a civilized society, one’s rights stop short of causing another pain and suffering. "


Here are some additional expert perspectives from veterinarians, animal control officers, behaviorists and others who support the NY devocalization ban.  But really, it's quite simple, as demonstrated below:

If you live in New York State, this is your chance: use your voice to protect voices that will otherwise be taken away.
1.) Contact your state assemblymember and tell them to pass A3431-A.
2.) Contact your state senator and urge them to pass bill S6167. 
              It's easy to do: simply state that you are a constituent 
(provide your address) who strongly supports the legislation. You may state that the procedure is documented by numerous veterinarians and animal care professionals to be an act of cruelty.  It also creates a safety issue for both animals and people with whom the animal can no longer communicate effectively.
3.) Tell your NY friends and family to contact their representatives.  Share this blog post or the information it contains.

Thank you for your commitment to basic ethics and to animals.  Your assemblymember and senator offices await your call this week! And remember, New Yorkers: Massachusetts already passed this law - we can't ever allow them to upstage us!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"Aren't All Vets Ethical?"

A veterinarian director at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services was recently suspended after deliberately leaking information involving an impending animal cruelty investigation. She initially denied tipping off the industry vet at a Butterball turkey facility and then confessed to doing so. The animal advocacy group Mercy for Animals had recently submitted undercover video footage of turkeys in poor condition at the Butterball facility being beaten, thrown and kicked.

You can read more about it here.

I'm writing about this case for two reasons. First is to illustrate the answer to a question I'm often asked, which is: "Aren't all vets ethical?" The answer, unfortunately, is no. Secondly, I'm noting how the public is appalled by "beating, kicking, throwing" kinds of abuses. It gives animal advocates cause to continue raising awareness about the more accepted, patronized industry practice of breeding animals into lifelong intensive confinement...because this is also a form of animal abuse.

Logically speaking, is this kind of system (which culminates in turkey deaths between 4-8 months of age) likely to result in any profound emotional respect for the animals being handled? What would happen if people researched turkey production while eating a turkey sandwich and gasping at the horrible "beating, kicking and throwing" abuses of turkeys? It's a sad question, but would we humans rather be kicked in the stomach a few times or spend 8 months confined to a cage that didn't allow for movement? Sad, yes, but I'm sure you see my point.

Anyway, back to the veterinarian. Of course there are unethical and dishonest actions being committed in every profession, but agricultural veterinary medicine has a way of repeatedly presenting a face to the public that it is primarily concerned with animal welfare. In actuality, animal welfare reform that interferes with economics is rarely welcomed in food animal medicine.

Fortunately, the Mercy for Animals investigation did result in North Carolina state authorities charging five Butterball employees with misdemeanor and felony animal cruelty charges. The veterinarian plead guilty to obstruction of justice charges.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Convenience Euthanasia Kills

In Saturday's New York Post, I read the extremely sad story of a TV soap actor, Nick Santino, who recently committed suicide while overwhelmed with grief.  According to the press, the management in his residential complex and fellow tenants had been unleashing discriminatory views and enacting bans that applied only to his dog, a pit bull mix.  After the criticism apparently became too much to bear, Santino thought the only feasible option was to euthanize his best friend of several years.  However, he wholeheartedly regretted the decision afterwards.  You can read the full story here.   
Pit bull discrimination is its own, separate blog post, but I wanted to mention something here about veterinarians performing "convenience euthanasias."
There are plenty of veterinarians who will kill (not "euthanize", as this denotes relief from suffering) an animal for any reason a client requests it.  Sometimes it is done with little information or without trying other alternatives.  Other times, veterinarians may perform convenience euthanasias because they're inundated with these requests and become exhausted from struggling with someone else's lifestyle and views.

This is a saddening consequence in a society where animals are often regarded as disposable property. Animals should not be disposable, and it often ends up being excruciatingly painful for people when they let themselves be taken by anyone's insistence that they are.  Animals are family members, after all, and if a neighbors didn't like the way a child looked, would a parent take him to the pediatrician and ask her to kill him?  It is unfortunate that highly educated professionals already loaded with responsibility are also forced to have society's misguided view of animals constantly dumped in their laps.  Ultimately, veterinarians are often the ones who are asked to do the dirty work.

But this is also why veterinarians, of all people, should vocally support a higher status for animals in society.  We shoot ourselves in the foot when we don't.  As in the case of Mr. Santino, many people are actually looking for a little courage to stand up for their best friend's life, not someone to condone their emotion-wrecked decision-making and get the needle in the vein as quickly as possible. 
Often animals are the best support people have, and losing them can be the final straw.  I think we'd do well to remember this.  Rest in peace, Nick and Rocco.