A conceptual model for veterinary ethics education

In his first blog, Dr Manuel Magalhaes-Sant’Ana, a specialist in animal welfare science, ethics and law, discusses how and why veterinary ethics should be taught as part of veterinary surgeon students' education.  

Imagine you are a small animal veterinary practitioner. Imagine you are called in the middle of the night on a Sunday because a dog has ‘suddenly’ become sick. Imagine you do not have anyone to help you at that late hour. Imagine that, at arrival, you realize that the dog is severely ill, with signs of being beaten (or maybe used in dog fights) several days ago. Imagine the owner is being evasive and deceiving when answering your questions. Imagine the owner refuses to pay the deposit for the dog to be hospitalized. Imagine having to decide what to do with the suffering animal. Imagine having to decide how to deal with the cagey owner. Imagine… well, I suppose the reader could find the suggested scenario to be exceedingly imaginative, if it wasn’t actually real.

This short story – taken from my own personal experience – is a typical example of the kind of practical as well as ethical challenges veterinary surgeons face on a daily basis after graduation, and further examples could have been easily chosen from any other field of veterinary sciences. The preferred approach to resolve such a case, however, would probably differ from person to person; some would try to explore the relational aspects of the veterinarian-client interaction in order to get more information about the animal (and an agreement on the deposit), while others would concentrate on defending  animal welfare, and adjourning decisions about owner liability or the deposit. Nevertheless, that does not mean that finding a way to tackle a challenging ethical scenario is all about relying on intransmissible personal talents or in acquired practical experience. In addition to scientific knowledge, competences of proper communication, decision-making, professionalism, and ethics can also be acquired or improved through training. Therefore, they should be part of the undergraduate training of a veterinary surgeon.

Ethics should be part of veterinary surgeon training

A number of issues arise when addressing the teaching of veterinary ethics, ranging from what should be taught, to what is expected to be achieved with such teaching. These issues are not specific to ethics teaching but the challenges they pose seem to be greater in ethics than for other subjects. When we speak of, for example, anatomy, there is a common understanding by the academic community of the educational needs in terms of contents and target species, and veterinary students must be introduced to the form and structure of the relevant domestic species. Although different approaches can be used to teach anatomy (regional vs. body systems; comparative vs. clinically integrated) the goals of teaching remain the same: to teach the morphology of the relevant domestic species. This same rationale, however, does not seem to apply to ethics, and to veterinary ethics in particular. Firstly, there is no standardised form of professional ethics to guide every activity within the field of veterinary medicine. Veterinary professional ethics could as easily deal with the use of steroids in race horses, tail docking in sheep, or euthanasia of stray dogs. And secondly, there is little consensus on whether its objective should be to promote virtuous behaviours in students, to make them understand the need to rely on professional rules, to foster the acquisition of ethical skills, or a combination of these.

So, what should be included in a curriculum of veterinary ethics?

Recent research has provided empirical evidence on this issue. Drawing from a review of resources in ethics from European veterinary schools and followed by semi-structured interviews with educators, a four-part conceptual model of veterinary ethics teaching has been suggested (Figure 1). This model considers veterinary ethics as an interdisciplinary concept, which combines animal welfare science, philosophical theories and concepts, professionalism as well as the regulatory framework. These are partially overlapping concepts and, according to the model, veterinary ethics education should include at least some of the topics considered within the four concepts.

In practical terms, the conceptual model suggests that a robust teaching programme in veterinary ethics needs to consider the behavioural aspects of the profession (how the  veterinarian communicates with the owner and relates to the animals), professional guidance (in terms of codes of ethics and relevant legislation), the science of animal welfare (including ways to gauge quality of life and how far we should go in using animals), and the moral values and the ethical theories that justify a given course of action. Taken together, these teaching topics will promote veterinarians’ moral agency and assist them in making informed and value-based decisions.











Figure 1 – The four-part conceptual model of veterinary ethics education. Adapted from Magalhães-Sant’Ana, 2014. Reproduced with permission from BMJ Publishing Group.



Further reading

[1] M. Magalhães-Sant’Ana (2015) A Theoretical Framework for Human and Veterinary Medical Ethics Education. Advances in Health Sciences Education 21(5), 1123-1136

[2] M. Magalhães-Sant’Ana (2014) Ethics teaching in European veterinary schools: a qualitative case study. Veterinary Record, 175(23):592.


* This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog belong solely to the blog owner and do not necessarily represent the views or policies of World Animal Protection.