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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

Animal Welfare

By Lynette A. Hart, PhD, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California ; Mariko Yamamoto, PhD, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis

Reducing or preventing the incidence of animal pain or distress and promoting animal well-being (and even pleasure) are overall goals of animal welfare. These goals pertain to animals on farms or in laboratories as well as companion animals. Aversive handling, even if infrequent, can have stressful consequences. Veterinarians are often the first contacts when someone seeks help for animals being badly treated or receiving inadequate care.

Intentional, deliberate abuse of animals is an extreme marker of a likely pattern of abuse elsewhere within a family. Veterinarians who report suspected animal abuse sometimes can avert similar abuse of other vulnerable family members, especially children or older adults. Two studies reported that >90% of veterinarians would report cases of suspected animal abuse to authorities. Most agreed that animal abuse in families would tend to be linked with abuse or mistreatment of children or older adults.

Although occasionally seen by veterinarians, outright abuse appears less common than the neglect, poor husbandry, or lack of essential medical care of animals, some of which may be inadvertent. A serious problem occurs with animal hoarders who may be mentally ill. The person, perhaps without awareness, acquires more animals than they can possibly care for properly. Some communities routinely combine efforts of animal control and mental health agencies when dealing with such cases.

A major, widespread societal problem of animal welfare is the abandoning and killing of companion animals. Relinquishment of animals that would be adoptable has decreased, yet the problem remains widespread. Many studies have shown that behavioral problems of animals and owners’ lack of knowledge of how to adequately care for an animal increase the likelihood of relinquishment. Veterinary teams can provide leadership and education about more realistic expectations of companion animals and can encourage earlier intervention if problems arise.

Despite the growing population of dogs and cats, the number of veterinary visits has been decreasing, raising concerns about whether pets are getting adequate veterinary care. Cats receive less veterinary care then dogs; a 2011 study found that 40% of cats had not been to a veterinarian within the past year, compared with 15% of dogs. Most of these cat owners said their pet "hated" going to the veterinarian. A cat's resistance to veterinary visits can be addressed by facilitating transport in carriers; making the visit, examination, and treatment more comfortable for the cat and owner; or considering mobile veterinary services.

Some emotionally charged issues and social conflicts pertaining to animals reflect contrasting perspectives on animal welfare. How best to deal with feral cats and their kittens can be a contentious question when weighed against the impact on songbirds and other wildlife. Another emerging concern is the possible adverse medical effect of early neutering for some breeds of dogs, such as a potentially increased incidence of hip dysplasia or certain cancers. Although early neutering curtails unwanted reproduction, other options also could be offered to owners to manage reproduction. As contentious topics regarding animal welfare arise in communities, veterinary professionals are those more prepared to offer reasoned and informed leadership to address problems.