How can veterinary care impact pet animal welfare?

Dawson, L. C., Dewey, C. E., Stone, E. A., Guerin, M. T., & Niel, L. (2016). A survey of animal welfare experts and practicing veterinarians to identify and explore key factors thought to influence canine and feline welfare in relation to veterinary care. Animal Welfare, 25(1), 125-134.

Veterinary care has clear benefits to improve an animal’s physical health and fitness, but how else can it influence their overall welfare? This study identified 85 factors relating to veterinary care which affect animal welfare, and provided practical suggestions on how these can be improved in both the veterinary clinic and home environment.  

Animal welfare encompasses many factors; the animal’s physical state (biological health and functioning), mental state (well-being and affective state) and naturalness (ability to fulfil natural behaviours) all need to be considered. Veterinary care has the potential to improve an animal’s physical health and fitness; however, it is also known that veterinary clinic visits can be the source of stress for many animals (and owners). This study aimed to identify which factors relating to veterinary care negatively affect pet animals, and assess how improvements can be made to instead positively affect their welfare.

Animal welfare researchers, experts and practicing veterinarians (n=78) from Canada, the US and the UK completed an online survey to assess the impact that veterinary care can have on companion animal welfare, both in the veterinary clinic setting and the home environment. The participants were asked to identify factors that influence animal welfare, rate the relative impact, and suggest ways to measure and/or improve each factor.  Overall, 85 factors were identified as being influential on pet animal welfare, and the majority of these received a moderate-high impact score; suggesting that veterinary care can significantly impact overall animal welfare.

Changes in key areas could improve animal welfare during vet clinic visits  

Some factors included short-term effects that occurred within veterinary clinic visits (e.g. discomfort during physical restraint), and some had long-term effects relating to care in the home environment (e.g. issues with pain management). In regards to making improvement within the vet clinic setting, all survey participants agreed that many factors could, and should, be improved; staff knowledge and recognition of species-specific behaviours (particularly regarding pain and fear), handling methods and use of positive reinforcement; staff training and communication regarding actions and procedures throughout exams; and provision of appropriate cage furnishings, flooring and surface traction. Additionally, all participants stated that staff communication and information sharing with owners could improve pet animal welfare in the home environment.

Overall the results demonstrate that there are key areas that could potentially impact animal welfare, and of these, the majority could be improved by making minor changes in the vet clinic environment, the staff behaviour and knowledge of species-specific needs, and in communication between staff and clients.

World Animal Protection’s view

Veterinary professionals are integral in providing good animal health services, and should be encouraged to further this by providing knowledge and practical solutions to improve other aspects of their patients’ welfare. World Animal Protection has developed training and educational programmes to improve practising vets and vet students’ knowledge of general animal welfare issues.