The Veterinary Profession: Leading Society Toward One Health

The significance, value and role of animals wild and domesticated in various cultures include spiritual (totemic and symbolic), biological and ecological (scientific), emotional (affection/aversion) and commercial (including consumptive) perspectives. Such diversity in perception and related treatment is the antithesis of a unified sensibility based on respect for all life and according all living beings equal and fair consideration—an essential extension of the Golden Rule to temper the harmful consequences and historical legacy of anthropocentrism’s limited and self-limiting world view.

Ethical consistency in our treatment of all beings based on the wisdom of the Golden Rule to avoid causing harm to others which we would not wish for ourselves is enlightened self-interest because when we harm others we ultimately harm ourselves. For example, the sciences of ecology and molecular biology have revealed the vital importance of bacteria and other microorganisms in the living soil and in our digestive systems, the former being essential for plant growth and health and the latter being intimately connected to our immune, endocrine, neurological, cognitive and other systems and functions. The complexities and interdependencies of living systems and life processes are challenges to the sciences and to human understanding; and to holistic, integrative medicine as well as to farming practices (including aquaculture and agroforestry) and all other industries and human activities that affect these systems and processes. Proceeding with the precautionary principle as our compass directing us away from hubris, rationalized selfishness and denial, human progress is a possibility and not a false hope.

Until the recent adoption of applied animal behavior, animal welfare science and the One Health concept, how well has the veterinary profession helped prevent the harms of anthropocentrism to animals and the environment and thus indirectly to ourselves, and to what degree does it continue to serve those interests causing more harm than good nationally and internationally?

Contemporary society has intensified the conflict of interest for the veterinary profession by first endorsing as accepted norms various extremes in selective animal breeding ( with genetic anomalies and compromised phenotypes); in keeping wild animals as “pets” and exploiting them for circus and other commercial purposes; and in animal husbandry practices, especially in factory farms/concentrated animal feeding operations that are contrary to the best interests of the animals and to their health and well-being. These are the primary concerns and responsibilities of the veterinary profession to promote, yet the various animal industries and animal-owning public essentially dismiss these concerns of veterinary bioethics (Fox 2011 ) as contrary to the accepted norms of animal use. The underlying economic and cultural justifications of what often amounts to abusive animal exploitation have put the veterinary profession in a double bind. By not asserting the core principles of veterinary bioethics and animal welfare science and ethics and being a guiding influence in society, the profession has become increasingly marginalized by the economics of the livestock industry. While it strives to serve this and the pet, exotic species and other animal industries it is seeing revenues decline as the industrial economy seeks more ‘efficiencies’ and continues to founder.

Millions of rural families in India and other developing countries, including some who are forced to move into urban slums, are in part sustained by an often shared milk cow and by a few goats and chickens. Few are fortunate to have access to grazing land, much communal land being overgrazed as per ecologist Garret Hardin’s (1977) predicted global “tragedy of the commons”. Without urgently needed subsidized veterinary services and supplies of animal feed and water (rather than scavenging off garbage) this sector’s farmed animal population (including bovids and equids used for draft work) continues to be a neglected and significant incubator of diseases harmful to other farmed animals, to wildlife and to the human populace locally, nationally and internationally. These problems are being compounded by the proliferation of intensive methods of livestock and poultry production using imported breeds. These operations become epicenters of pollution and disease, and, along with imported varieties of commercial crops, accelerate the loss of biological diversity as indigenous breeds are marginalized from the agricultural system.

The veterinary profession can be a significant contributor of expertise to the One Health approach to the rising public health issues of foodborne illnesses, zoonotic diseases including those arising from disrupted and endangered biotic communities and wildlife species. After having played a not insignificant role in contributing to these problems by its unquestioned service to the livestock industry in the industrialized and developing sectors of the world, organized government veterinary services and private practitioners are not alone in having to make amends and rectify the ultimate human and environmental costs of decades of animal exploitation, documented suffering and ecological harm.

We must all make amends in the name of respect for all life, compassion and justice being the foundation of a more civilized world community with a new vision of health arising from enlightened altruism: When we care for the land, the land will care for us, and when we care for animals wild and domesticated, we care for ourselves because our health and well-being is a reflection of theirs. This is affirmed by the science and ethics of One Health (Fox 2011).

A substantial percentage of the annual profits of the pharmaceutical industry should be provided to support public health and preventive medicine initiatives and also independent research in alternative, complementary and integrative veterinary and human medicine with especial emphasis on nutrition and epigenetics. The dominance of conventional/allopathic practice relying on synthetic pharmaceuticals and new generation genetically engineered biologics to treat various human and non-human medical and psychological/behavioral conditions is facilitated by alignment with the health insurance industry. Coupled with rising costs of prescription drugs and limited ability of the government to effectively guarantee drug safety and efficacy with fast-track approval of U.S. -developed and patented pharmaceuticals and others imported from countries like India and China with endemic problems of corruption and price-fixing, this scenario is a major obstacle to real progress in One Health.

History informs, as the contemporary healing professions will confirm, contrived sympathy for patients is no substitute for empathy. But the burden of empathy is too often avoided at the expense of the intuitive, subjective, healer-patient relationship. This relationship is part of the “art” of human and veterinary medicine. In its absence, which objective detachment facilitates, the impersonal and impartial science of medicine becomes blind to its own limitations. This is because the emotional, existential, phenomenological and ecological/environmental dynamics of dis-ease etiology and symptomatology are oversimplified and marginalized. They are reduced to fit the moralistic, mechanistic and economistic imperialism of conventional diagnostics and treatments in the health insurance and drug industry-dominated main-stream human and animal care professions as predicted almost forty years ago by Ivan Illich (1977).

This anthropocene epoch with its evident anthropogenic contributions to disease, climate change and loss of biodiversity will be either one of intensifying global strife and dis-ease or transition into what the late Thomas Berry (1988) called the ecozoic age; the age of ecological consciousness. A new social, or more correctly a biosocial contract or covenant between society and animals and our shared environment is called for based on the principles of an egalitarian respect for all life, eco-justice and planetary CPR—-conservation, preservation and restoration of both cultural and biological diversity.

An integral aspect of One Health is the saving not only indigenous crop varieties and breeds of domestic animal, which are generally better adapted climatically and more disease-resistant than imported varieties, but also indigenous knowledge. This includes tried and true methods of animal husbandry and disease prevention and traditional medicinal treatments especially with botanicals which, as several authors have documented, ( Lans 2011, Lans et al 2007, Mathias 2004) should not be dismissed as being scientifically unproven and abandoned in favor of synthetic pharmaceutical products which are often too costly if even available in many rural communities.

The veterinary and other professional organizations, multinational corporations and governments alike, as well as the consumer-populace, have the power and responsibility to determine what the future quality of life will be on planet Earth. This will be more for the better than for the worse when improving the health and well-being of animals wild and domesticated is recognized as a trans-cultural ethical imperative. This auspicious beginning heralded by veterinarians’ commitment to the One Health movement, (which is more than promoting vaccinations and various pharmaceuticals); to wildlife and endangered species conservation, and to making long overdue improvements in animal care and well-being though a holistic, integrative approach as advocated by the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association and other organizations and individuals of like mind.


Berry, Thomas. (1988). The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco Sierra Books. See also

Fox, Michael W. Healing Animals & The Vision of One Health. ( 2011). CreateSpace Publications/* See also Bringing Life to Ethics: Global Bioethics for a Humane Society. Albany NY, State University of New York Press. See also Fox, M.W.!1995). Veterinary bioethics: ecoveterinary and ethnoveterinary perspectives. Veterinary Research Communications, 19: 9-16 and Fox, M.W. (2006.) Principles of Veterinary Bioethics. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 229: 666-667

Hardin, Garrett, (1977). The Limits of Altruism: An Ecologist’s View of Survival. Bloomington, Indiana University Press

Illich, Ivan, (1977). Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health. New York, Bantam.

Lans, Cheryl. (2011). Validation of ethnoveterinary medicinal treatments. Vet. Parasitology 178 (3-4): 389-90

Lans, Cheryl et al. (2007). Ethnoveterinary Medicine: Potential Solutions for Large-Scale Problems. In Veterinary Herbal Medicine, eds. Susan G. Wynn and Barbara J. Fougere, 17-32. St. Louis, Mo.: Mosby Elsevier

Mathias, E. (2004). “Ethnoveterinary medicine: Harnessing its potential.” Vet Bull 74 (8): 27N – 37N.

See also: Barry S. Kipperman (2015) The role of the veterinary profession in promoting animal welfare, JAVMA 246: 502-504, and Manuel Magalhães Sant’Ana, (2014). PhD Dissertation: Why, What & How To Teach Ethics to Veterinary Students in Europe.

*This book is available gratis from the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association as a PDF to all veterinary students joining the Association.


After a fortuitous meeting with oncologist the late Van Rensselaer Potter, MD,* who first coined the term bioethics to extend the scope of medical ethics from its primary focus on professional conduct and standards of care/practice to embrace environmental, population and epidemiological dimensions of human health and disease prevention, I realized that a similar application of bioethics was needed for the practice of veterinary medicine.

The vision I had shared with my friend and colleague the late Prof. Calvin W. Schwabe, DVM,* (who was the first in modern times to link veterinary epidemiology and comparative medicine with the concept of One Health) was for the veterinary profession to serve as the interlocutor between animals and society/civilization for the benefit of both. Applied bioethics provides the essential template for progress in One Health to be realized.

In modern parlance this role of the veterinarian in society is one of symbiogenesis (facilitating mutually benefiting symbiotic relationships between humans and non-humans, wild and domesticated, which are ecologically and environmentally neutral or enhancing) rather than one of pathogenesis as per the plethora of agricologenic, domesticogenic and iatrogenic diseases that afflict selected plant and animal species subjected to human manipulation and exploitation.

This role of interlocutor/intermediary has its roots in the shamanic and other animistic customs, rituals and ethical traditions of past indigenous cultures and economies, few of which survive today. One remnant, almost archaic term survives from that epoch in Western industrial society, namely “Animal Husbandry”. Like rare seeds and breeds, indigenous cultures need to be saved from extinction/assimilation, their indigenous knowledge being an invaluable resource for conservation and restoration of the ecosystems they inhabit and where veterinary services, too often not provided by corrupt and indifferent government agencies, are of critical importance for both the wildlife and the domestic animals upon whom these people rely. Planetary CPR (conservation, restoration and preservation) must include the protection and enhancement of both cultural and biological diversity.

*Van Rensselaer Potter (1988). Global Bioethics: Building on the Leopold Legacy. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press

* Calvin W. Schwabe (1978). Cattle, Priests and Progress in Medicine. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press

The author writes the weekly syndicated newspaper column Animal Doctor, and is a long time member of the British Veterinary Association, American Holistic Veterinary Medical and is an Honor Roll member of the American Veterinary Medical Association holding degrees in veterinary medicine and doctoral degrees from London University, England in medicine and ethology/animal behavior. Email Website