Identifying priority welfare issues - Veterinary Practice
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Identifying priority welfare issues

Results of a recent study will help prioritise animal welfare issues in the UK using expert consensus

Animal welfare remains an area of consistent public concern. To determine where limited funding resources should be directed, or to raise awareness of best practice, it is sometimes necessary to prioritise particular welfare issues to identify those needing special consideration. The relative importance of specific welfare issues can be determined by public concern, political interests or scientific assessment.

A recent study conducted at the University of Edinburgh used a modified Delphi procedure to create an overall ranking of welfare issues for managed animals in the UK. The species included in the study were: horses, cats, rabbits, exotics, wild-life, cattle, pigs, poultry, small ruminants and dogs. The study was funded by the Animal Welfare Foundation (AWF) with the aim of prioritising research and funding areas.

The study recruited 144 animal welfare experts, divided between 10 species groups. Experts were recruited from a range of disciplines, including practising veterinarians, academics, charity sector employees, industry representatives and policy officials. Two rounds of surveys were conducted online, and the final round was an in-person workshop with a subset of experts. The experts agreed that welfare issues should be ranked considering three categories: severity, duration and prevalence.

There are too many results from this Delphi study to present here in this article; however, some results of particular interest are presented below. Full results of this study are expected to be published in the Veterinary Record later this year.

Common findings for companion animals

The results from the first round of online surveys highlighted several similarities that could be seen across companion animal species. For example, social behaviour issues, negative affective states, behavioural restrictions, consequences of long stays in shelters and consequences from breeding decisions (genetic issues and breeding for exaggerated conformation) featured highly in both the cat and dog lists. Issues relating to inadequate diets were very high in the rabbit and horse lists, and obesity featured highly on all four companion animal lists.

Results for farm animals

When considering the survey results for the farmed species many of the high-ranking issues were health-related. For example, common production diseases, lameness, lack of routine healthcare, painful procedures, etc.

However, more emphasis was put onto behavioural restrictions and negative affective states of production animals during the workshop discussions – for example, the inability to express natural behaviours featured highly on the poultry priority lists (it was the third-ranked issue for duration and severity, and second rank for prevalence). Behavioural needs not being met was also the top ranking, and third-top ranking for pigs (severity and duration, and prevalence, respectively).

Recurring issues across all the farmed species were delayed euthanasia and delayed veterinary care. There are several reasons why delayed euthanasia decisions might occur, including extending an animal’s time for recovery from an illness or injury “to give them a chance”, inexperience of the stockperson in either assessing an animal’s prognosis or carrying out the procedure of euthanasia or waiting for the animal to complete a stage of production before finally being euthanised.

Delayed access to veterinary care may be due to economic concerns (relating to the value of individual animals), an inability to provide individualised care to extensively kept species, reduced access to specialist veterinary care in some areas or incorrect diagnosis and inappropriate therapies from farmers.

Delays in both veterinary care and euthanasia cause poor welfare and unnecessary suffering for the animal. These are complex issues but may be partially addressed through improved staff training programmes and better on-farm protocols.

Overarching themes

During the workshop, which involved 21 experts, the top-ranking welfare issues for animals (at individual level) included inappropriate home environment, behavioural needs not being met, consequences from breeding decisions, lack of socialisation and handling, delayed euthanasia and lack of basic care, including neglect, lethal wildlife management and inappropriate nutrition.

The experts were also asked to consider if they could identify any broad, overarching themes that cut across all species. They reached consensus on a list of issues which included lack of knowledge of the animal’s requirements and behaviour, social behaviour issues, delayed euthanasia, inappropriate breeding decisions and inappropriate diets and environments.

The most recurring issue that came up in many discussions was “lack of knowledge”. Specifically, owners or caretakers not being aware of the welfare needs of these species and a lack of species-specific behavioural knowledge (eg behaviours often wrongly interpreted). For some species, particularly farmed species, there may also be a lack of veterinary knowledge, as there is not as much time spent learning about behaviour in these animals in the student curriculum compared to companion animals.

The theme of “lack of knowledge” can have a number of different causes. For example, in some instances, the knowledge is known, by researchers or veterinarians, but is not widely understood by animal owners or caretakers. Or, the knowledge is not available and more research is required (particularly true for non-traditional companion animals). In some instances, professionals and caretakers know what the “gold standard” of care should be; however, a range of limitations may prevent caretakers from implementing the advice (eg financial, time, access restrictions). These are all important considerations when looking to apply strategies to improve some of these welfare issues.

For all species, many welfare issues are multifactorial, and it can be difficult to untangle them. However, during this study the experts from each group were successfully able to reach consensus. The final priority welfare issues contained a mix of animal-, resource- and management-based factors, and can help to guide future research, funding and education priority decisions.

Implications for vets

For many animal owners and caretakers, veterinarians are the main contact for animal welfare advice. One of the major cross-species welfare issues that came out of this study was “lack of knowledge”, often around understanding animal needs and animal behaviour. The amount of animal behaviour in the veterinary curriculum varies but if this has been insufficient, may indicate an area where some vets and other veterinary professionals require further training. Improved ways to communicate animal behaviour and welfare knowledge to animal owners, particularly pre-purchase, may also improve animal welfare.

Cathy Dwyer

Cathy Dwyer, BSc, PhD, is Head of the Animal Behaviour and Welfare team of Scotland’s Rural College within the Animal and Veterinary Sciences Department, and is Director of the Jeanne Marchig International Centre for Animal Welfare Education.

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Fiona Rioja-Lang

Fiona Rioja-Lang, BSc, MSc, PhD, is a Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh and specialises in ethology and farm animal welfare. Most recently, Fiona has completed a Delphi study, prioritising animal welfare issues in the UK.

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