Communicating ‘a desire to do better’

01 April 2014, at 1:00am

Veterinary Practice hears the new professor of animal welfare at Bristol spell out his view that communication is one of the main barriers to improving conditions

THE inauguration of David Main as professor of animal welfare highlights the extensive work being carried out at the Bristol veterinary school.

David is an RCVS specialist in Animal Welfare, Ethics and Law and a diplomate of the European college of Animal Welfare and Behaviour Medicine. During his inaugural address he was quick to emphasise that what has been achieved is very much a team effort and he utilised sophisticated graphics to demonstrate collaboration between the many people involved in published studies linked to Bristol.

The theme of the talk was: Is better animal welfare an opportunity or an obligation; despite the many difficulties in actually improving farm animal welfare, separated from the theory, his advice is that we should “rejoice in the good stuff”.

With family and colleagues listening intently, David outlined his personal experiences of communication issues within a hospital situation over an extended period of time. From the welfare trials, with the involvement of veterinary surgeons and hundreds of farmers, similar aspects have been identified.

The information is sound, the methods are proven but it is the inability to communicate effectively that delays progress.

Within this context the role of the veterinary surgeon is highly important and lessons have been learned from the work between doctors and patients.

Commencing later this year is a hands-on study involving veterinary surgeons engaged in dairy work. Supported by the BVA Animal Welfare Foundation, the value of motivational interviewing in forwarding the uptake of husbandry veterinary advice is being developed.

Veterinary surgeons in dairy practice who would like to know more and possibly take part are invited to contact the university via

Over 20 years ago, David pointed out, it was considered that animal welfare was an obligation and that farmers were the means to an end. Today there is “an exciting opportunity to make better use of existing knowledge and realise the commercial value of higher welfare”.

Ten years ago it was stated that “it is the role of Government to establish levels of welfare on behalf of society and enforce those standards” but only “where the market on its own cannot deliver some or all of the objectives”.

Husbandry advisory tool

Various studies combined knowledge of disease processes and husbandry risks with farm-specific diagnosis and farm-specific risks to suggest control methods and a husbandry advisory tool was developed to facilitate this approach.

Lessons were learned by application in dairy cattle lameness, tail biting in pigs and injurious pecking in hens. The Healthy Feet Project has been taken up by DairyCo.

Beak trimming is an ongoing issue with the possibility of legislation and the development of FeatherWel, promoting bird welfare, is an industry initiative. David makes the point that in the areas of pecking and tail biting, veterinary advice is often not sought and veterinary surgeons are not routinely engaged to develop on-farm solutions.

The problem revolves in that if veterinary surgeons are not involved with clients on these issues then the demand to keep abreast of research and positive developments remains low. Extending the scope of veterinary consultations to improve farm animal welfare is a major aim.

In carrying out a welfare assessment, the available welfare resources lead onto improved welfare outcomes.

With cattle, resources include the training, experience and personality of the stockman, the environmental conditions of housing, diet, social grouping and animal genetics with outcomes related to animal behaviour, lying times, fearfulness, social interaction, health, body condition, injuries and the recording of medicines, mortality and production. 

Farm assurance has moved forward with Bristol developing assessment protocols for pigs, cattle and poultry. 

The vision of AssureWel is that all assurance schemes will use welfare outcome assessments to their full potential to improve animal welfare. There are two goals: to deliver optimum welfare assurance within RSPCA Freedom Food and Soil Association certification and to promote uptake of outcome- based assurance within UK and European farm assurance schemes. 

The first year of the project concentrates on laying hens, the second year dairy and year three onwards pigs, broilers sheep and beef. The initiative has been operating for two years with hens and a reduction in pecking is recorded with over half of the 800 participating farms initiating husbandry changes.

Welfare issues directly influence supermarkets. Examples of headlines linking the retailer with welfare problems on supplier farms show that the farmer is no longer seen as an independent producer. It is therefore reasonable that the retailer seeks assurance that no adverse welfare takes place on supplier farms.

Welfare assessments are seen as a means of matching consumer expectations. But not everyone within the veterinary industry agrees that assessments lead to improvements in welfare. 

Some people indicate that “we’re faced with the all-pervading and ever- increasing miasma of quality assurance in livestock production, particularly in the field of animal welfare. It’s swelling the coffers of university departments, of charities and of limited companies that ‘deliver’ quality assurance, whatever that might mean”. 

Professor Main indicates that this view indicates the need to express the benefits. Thus, the comment “rejoice in the good stuff”. There are four approaches to welfare improvement: education providing knowledge, enforcement insisting on action, economics providing financial incentives and encouragement with positive motivation.

Veterinary organisations have an opportunity to be more proactive with animal welfare policies so that individual veterinary surgeons are motivated to do their best for animal welfare.

On-line tutorials for students have been developed and EUWelNet for official veterinarians has been positively received in 11 countries. David raised the question that, “Education can have an effect on inspectors but will it change compliance amongst farmers?”

Cost not a major concern

Studies have shown that the barriers to lameness control in dairy herds are lack of time and lack of labour. Cost is not considered by the farmers to be a major concern for them.

Pride in a healthy herd is identified as the main motivator to control lameness. The challenge is to develop a participatory approach. Being involved is believed to be a key driver for effectiveness.

Advancing communication skills in challenging emotional situations, including euthanasia and animal abuse, are being developed. In medicine there is emphasis on what would a friend say? This includes thinking about how friends would talk about the problem rather than trying to calculate an ideal empathetic response.

Health practitioners are advised to practise a guiding rather than directing style, to develop strategies to elicit the patient’s own motivation to change and to refine listening skills and respond by encouraging change talk from the patient.

The development of motivational interviewing is expected to promote the uptake of veterinary advice and improve cattle welfare.

David concluded his presentation with the statement that higher, positive or better welfare is about recognising, understanding, quantifying and communicating our desire to do better for animals.

There is an opportunity to make better use of existing knowledge and realise the commercial value of higher welfare and an obligation to support evidence-based interventions and facilitate a market in higher welfare products. It was a most interesting talk.