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The animals beyond our oath

Alongside our dedication to our patients, as custodians of animal welfare we need to own a responsibility to the animals beyond “our care”

07 December 2020, at 6:50am

As veterinary surgeons, our oath is to, above all, con­stantly endeavour to ensure the health and welfare of the animals committed to our care (RCVS, 2020). This is an oath most of us take extremely seriously by dedicating our lives to animals, from the consult room, surgical thea­tre, board room, laboratory, auditorium or behind screens of data. In return for this dedication, we hold the trust and respect of our clients, our communities and the wider pub­lic (RCVS, 2019) – a testament to the significance of animals in all their forms to human well-being.

Under our care

But what about the animals not “committed to our care” – including those that are suffering as a consequence of human activity? And more specifically, those we may be unintentionally having an impact on in pursuit of optimising the health, welfare and productivity of our patients?

We live in a time of mounting environmental concern: we have been warned that we have only 12 years to avert a climate and ecological disaster that would threaten human civilisation and the natural world (IPCC, 2018). Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history, with the rate of species extinctions accelerating (IPBES, 2019). Among the primary reasons for these population declines are land-use change and habitat destruction to fulfil growing human demands for food, clothing, energy, medi­cines, pets, buildings and technology, to name just a few.

Many of us joined the veterinary profession not with a sole interest in a single domestic species, but fascinated by the animal kingdom in all its diversity, and with a desire to help those that cannot help themselves. Veterinary professionals have so much to give and already make a significant, if largely under-recognised, contribution to some of the most pressing sustainability challenges of our time. But as custodians of animal welfare, I believe that alongside our dedication to our patients, we need to own a responsi­bility to the animals beyond “our care”. Here I discuss some examples of veterinary and animal husbandry practices that hold opportunities for change.

Downstream impacts of medicines

A recent publication by Perkins et al. (2020) found fipronil and imidacloprid in English rivers at levels exceeding their chronic toxicity limits. Chronic risk quotients indicated a high environmental risk to aquatic ecosystems from fiproles, and a moderate risk from imidacloprid. According to the authors, potentially significant quantities of pesticides from veterinary flea products may be entering waterways via household drains.

Notwithstanding the significant knowledge gaps that remain around this subject, this important work questions the dominant practice of routine prophylactic insecticide treatments in companion animal practice, with calls for a risk-based approach to parasite control (Prentis, 2020). In addition, reviewing our advice to clients regarding ani­mal care following topical flea product application, and further work to determine the preparations and routes of administration carrying lower environmental risks would be valuable (Perkins et al., 2020). Such approaches would need to balance multiple goals of protecting our patients, safeguarding public health and conserving biodiversity.

Other medicinal compounds are also the source of concern regarding their environmental fate. The toxicity of certain non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to vultures is well documented, with livestock use of diclofenac, carprofen and flunixin associated with mortality in scavenging Gyps vultures in Asia, with known toxicity to other species such as raptors, storks, cranes and owls (Cuthbert et al., 2007). Closer to home, NSAID poisoning in Eurasian griffons has also been documented in Europe’s vulture stronghold, Spain. These impacts underline the importance of well-managed carrion disposal, alongside appropriate risk labelling and responsible use of veterinary NSAIDs and other pharmaceuticals potentially toxic to avian scavengers in these key regions (Herrero-Villar et al., 2020).

Feed sourcing

The expansion of soya production is a significant driver of deforestation and natural habitat destruction in South America. The impacts of forest loss are far reaching, and include loss of biodiversity, carbon emissions, damage to water systems and displacement of local communities. Most of the soya produced goes into animal feed, an impor­tant and nutritionally valuable protein source for pigs and poultry, and some dairy and beef cattle (NFU, 2019).

The UK Roundtable for Responsible Soy (RTRS) seeks to secure supplies of deforestation-free sustainable soya for the UK market (NFU, 2019). Such initiatives may become increas­ingly important as the UK government draws up plans requir­ing larger companies to prove commodities in their supply chains are free from illegal deforestation. Building sustainable feeding practices, including provenance and procurement, into our discussions with farmers and supply chain intermediaries can help to build demand for sustainable soy and alternative feed sources, as well as practices to reduce soy reliance – for the benefit of the wildlife species that call rainforest, cerrado and other precious habitats their home.

Our profession is uniquely placed to lead an agenda around sustainability at the human-animal-environment interface, and 89 percent of us wish to be actively involved in sustainability (BVA, 2019). With the future of some spe­cies hanging in the balance, we can appraise our own prac­tices as well as the advice we offer our clients, to ensure that as a profession we are mitigating environmental harm. Where possible, this should go further to help regenerate our ecosystems with One Health benefits for all.