Veterinary Economics, Ethics and Farm Animal Welfare


                                        By Dr. Michael W. Fox 

Despite, and in part because of advances in the biomedical sciences, the health and welfare of farmed animals have been on the decline over the past three to four decades, due principally to competitive economic pressures in the livestock and poultry industries. This statement may seem outlandish, if not offensive to those many veterinarians dedicated to improving the health and well-being of animals under their care. But as this review will document, the veterinary profession has become as much a victim of these forces and trends as the animals themselves.

The advent of CAPOs—confined animal production operations —has meant increased reliance on vaccines and drugs to control disease and to maximize production and profits in livestock and poultry husbandry systems that are highly stressful, immuno-compromising and create consumer and worker health and safety problems. A percentage of animal morbidity and mortality—and associated suffering—is accepted as the price of doing business ‘economically and efficiently. CAPOs have also decimated rural communities and that meant the demise of the ‘mixed’ veterinary practice, a return to which some advocate, not out of nostalgia but from a sense of community renewal and sustainability.

Except as a provider of drugs and vaccines and monitor of zoonotic diseases, the food-animal veterinarian is limited in what can be done economically beyond being merely a service provider to the industry. Food animal veterinarians have knowledge and skills that are rarely applied because they add to production costs of CAPOs, the exceptions being with valuable foundation and breeding stock, small farm and ranch operators, and organic and livestock and poultry producers whose husbandry practices are more challenging and usually more humane than CAPOs.

The veterinary bioethical principle of the One Health (where human health=animal health=environmental health) is undermined by the economic pressures on CAPO managers who are forced ‘to seek greater efficiencies’ to quote from the editorial comment in the British Veterinary Association’s Veterinary Record (1).

There has been much recent discussion about recruitment of veterinarians into the food animal medicine sector, and what the future may hold for new graduates. Heather Lyons Narver, VMD, in her Commentary ‘Demographics, moral orientation, and veterinary shortages in food animal and laboratory animal medicine’ (2) raises some pertinent concerns. Aside from the current predominance of women in veterinary colleges in the US, the shortage of both men and women in the food animal and laboratory animal medicine sectors may reflect a convergence of gender-linked differences in moral philosophy. This is with respect to animals being treated ‘as an economic commodity’ and ‘as an intellectual commodity’ to use Dr. Narver’s terms, in these respective sectors.

There is limited employment opportunity for veterinarians in CAPOs. For economic reasons, veterinary services and compassionate care are short-changed in the CAPOs of the main-stream food and drug industries that accept a percentage of animal loss from stress, injuries and disease. Any percentage of disease loss when those diseases are indicators of bad husbandry, (also termed production-related, or domestogenic diseases) is ethically questionable.

The veterinary mission to control and prevent these indicator diseases reflective of pathogenic conditions and unsound husbandry and breeding practices is not as laudable as it once was, now that the cost-justified suffering of animals in CAPOs is evoking more public concern as well as the ‘carbon footprint’ and other hidden costs of ‘cheap’ meat.(3 ). The long predicted (4) development of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria such as MRSA and MRSP (methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus and Staph. psuedointermedius) in livestock infecting humans, and of CAPOs becoming the epicenters for human pandemics like avian and swine flu have come to pass, further underscoring the inherent flaws in the livestock industry that will not be rectified simply by treating animal produce with isotopic irradiation, (that causes brain damage when fed to cats). Freeze-drying and hydrostatic pressure food treatments may be less hazardous alternatives.

What then are veterinary colleges and these animal-based industries doing to fill this lack of food animal veterinarians that could mean lower standards of animal health, consumer safety/public health, animal welfare and animal protection oversight? To possibly help rectify the shortage of veterinarians in the food animal sector the multinational drug company Pfizer Animal Health has teamed with the American Veterinary Medical Foundation to award $2,500 scholarships to more than 225 veterinary students in the US (5).

RECYCLING BY-PRODUCTS & FOOD SAFETY Both production-enhancing drug and vaccine addicted livestock and poultry industries, and the petrochemical and pesticide addicted, gene-engineering human food and beverage, and livestock feed industries, create enormous volumes of sometimes hazardous waste by-products that are recycled very profitably into pet foods, livestock feeds, fertilizer and human supplements, cosmetics and toiletries and a host of other secondary consumables. The safety of these secondary consumables, many imported from third world countries by US manufacturers, are too complex and costly to effectively police. This is what the heads of government agencies like the USDA and FDA say at every Congressional hearing on some major E.coli hamburger or contaminated spinach recall, or massive pet food recall as at the Senate Sub-committee hearings in 2007.

The animal and human health benefits of prebiotics and probiotics, along with biologically appropriate diets, which nurture beneficial gut bacteria, parallel organic farming practices that benefit soil microorganisms essential to crop health and nutrient content. Both gut and soil bacteria are respectively harmed by agrichemicals, antibiotics and GM (genetically modified) crops and foods leading to bacterial population imbalances and dysbiosis.


As the percentage of veterinary college graduates seeing advanced training increases, the DVM/VMD degree is being seen as an ‘entry- level degree’ (6). And as more graduates work toward certification in various specialty fields, particularly in the companion animal sector, we may find there is an increasing shortage of general practitioners, a recognized regional problem in human health care industry. Increasing service costs to clients could mean fewer companion animals receive adequate veterinary care. The net result of new DVM graduates feeling inadequate and compensating for a lack of practical clinical experience through mentorship and internship programs by electing instead to work toward board-certification in some specialty such as internal medicine or dermatology, aside from the promise of higher incomes (7) remains to be seen. Veterinarian Jeffrey A. LaCroix (8) calls for a limited licensure where veterinary students would elect to specialize in either companion animal or food animal medicine, for example, at the start of their education rather than investing in subsequent postgraduate specialization. ‘In the current economic climate, there are even fewer pet owners willing and able to pay for this (specialist-referral0 level of care. In this scenario, the specialist may find many more colleagues sharing a smaller pie.”

There are surely veterinary students who would like to work with wild animals but not in a laboratory or conventional zoo and circus setting, or with farmed animals under organic and other humane husbandry systems, especially in the aid programs for ‘developing’ countries. But funding is often lacking in these non-commercial sectors, and having to pay off hefty student loans can leave veterinary graduates with few options outside of the commercial and animal research industry sectors, especially in developing and testing new drugs, vaccines, and high-tech diagnostics and therapies.

Many epidemiologists and other biomedical scientists contend that more research should be done in-field, and not in laboratories trying to simulate various animal diseases, often with considerable difficulty without violating animal protection laws and institutional animal research protocols. Focusing on the ecology of animal disease and health, many veterinary students would enroll in a farmed/food animal or wildlife specialty. Others could specialize in veterinary immunology, genetics and pathology that would better serve the new wave of organically certified and humane animal production systems and wildlife and biodiversity conservation fields rather than the end goals of CAPOs and the increasingly dysfunctional global food industry. Better to address the root causes of dysfunction than to develop yet stronger pesticides, vaccines, and veterinary medicines for ever more CAPOs that are the antithesis of humane animal husbandry, and are seen by many communities, health and environment experts, as destroying all hope for a more viable and fulfilling future.

I see grounds for hope when veterinary schools develop and offer degree programs, postgraduate internships and residencies, as well as advanced degrees which enable students to work in these emergent sectors that are calling for veterinarians to help with animal health and welfare problems, and also wildlife preservation and habitat restoration. These emergent sectors are notably in extensive, organic and other less intensive animal husbandry (including aquaculture) systems, and in wildlife medicine where veterinary expertise can be crucial in efforts to save endangered species and other wildlife and their habitats as well as addressing new ‘emerging’ zoonotic diseases. Specializing in ‘exotic’ animal medicine to serve those who keep various wild species as ‘pets’ or as a hobby, and who support the often illegal market trade in wildlife, is an ethically questionable professional pursuit.

Perhaps all first year veterinary students should take a basic introductory clinical course in applied bioethics (9) with an emphasis on the ecology, ethics, and economics of domestic and wild animal diseases that tie in with sustainable and healthful food production, water and other resource management, conservation and preservation practices, and especially with genetic preservation in terms of the biodiversity of both seed-stock and breed-stock. Such a course could be revisited in the final year to help give clarity and resolution to their future professional goals. Learning the elements of indigenous wisdom especially concerning sustainable agricultural practices, medicinal and food plants, and the adaptive and productive traits of rare breeds and their inherent biological value—ethnoveterinary medicine—would broaden the vision of students if not also their future career choices and opportunities.

Real progress in veterinary and human medicine will come not in correcting the problems of dysfunctional and often over-capitalized, energy-consuming, life and nutrition-degrading, and environmentally damaging systems and industries, but in client education, and in the creative anarchism and paradigm shift toward a more holistic, integrative approach to health care and maintenance, rather than profiting from treating disease and suffering, and in the process simply preserving the status quo. Informed consumers vote with their dollars when there is freedom of choice that monopolistic oligopolies abhor. For companion animal veterinary business enterprises to have to sell products and services that are at best ethically questionable and at worse do more harm than good, in order to stay in business, would be an unethical pursuit for any reasonably intelligent and rational life form.



Because it stood by and did nothing other than eagerly offer professional advice and services, organized veterinary medicine in most all industrialized countries is in large part responsible for the suffering of billions of intensively raised farm animals on so called factory farmed and feedlots. Farmed animal health, behavioral and welfare issues associated with these food animal production methods, ( now referred to by the industry as confinement animal feeding operations or CAFOs), were seen as a challenge rather than as symptoms of husbandry systems and practices that were bioethically unacceptable and should never exist. But they soon spread to developing countries under the support of agencies like the World Bank and British Overseas Development Corporation which are linked with multinational agribusiness interests, from livestock feed, drugs and vaccines to breeding stock and vertically integrated market monopolies.

I have visited these animal concentration camps and documented the suffering, stress and distress of poultry, pigs and cattle, including dairy cows, beef cattle and veal calves under conditions that deprive them of their basic behavioral needs and of any quality of life, all in the name of profit and ‘production efficiencies’ that are touted as reducing consumer costs.

It took over 25 years since the publication of my book Farm Animals: Husbandry, Behavior and Veterinary Practice (Baltimore, Maryland, University Park Press, 1984), along with the reports by others documenting the connections between CAFOs, animal diseases and related public health and environmental concerns for the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health to acknowledge these connections and to begin to work together to find solutions. (See

Organized veterinary medicine in Europe and North America has begun to rally (too little too late?), one editorial in the British Veterinary Record , (June 5th, 2010, p 702) noting “The concept of ‘one world, one health, one medicine’ has so much to commend it that it is surprising that it has not caught on more quickly”. I find it not surprising considering the denial of the evils of CAFOs and the gulling of consumers into believing that this is the way modern farming is done to make food affordable and to feed the hungry world.

Such unconscionable mistreatment of sentient beings is a sad reflection of our own lack of humanity which cannot be justified even if these animals were bred and raised simply for human consumption and knew no better life prior to their slaughter. It underscores the truism that when we harm others we harm ourselves.

The following is a brief synopsis of the major health and welfare concerns that can only be rectified not by strict ‘humane’ standards, inspections and enforcement, but by the phasing out of all such methods of animal production, and the adoption of husbandry systems that provide for animals’ physical and behavioral needs and that are ecologically integrated with sustainable farming practices.

Caged Laying Hens: Extreme overcrowding, lack of movement induced osteoporosis, bone fractures, foot lesions from wire floor, feather-picking and cannibalism.

Broiler Chickens: Extreme overcrowding, lameness, breast blisters, feather picking and cannibalism, ‘keel-over’ heart-failure from rapid growth. Eye problems, including blindness, from poor ventilation.

Penned Piglets: Overcrowding, boredom, tail-biting, cannibalism, lameness and foot lesions from a life on concrete slatted floors. Circulation and joint problems from rapid growth and large body mass . Chronic respiratory problems from poor ventilation.

Breeding Sows in crates: Extreme physical constraint,(unable to walk or turn around), lameness, arthritis, boredom and stereotypic behaviors indicative of stress and distress.

Veal Calves in crates: Extreme physical constraint, (unable to walk or turn around), social deprivation, iron-deficient diet causing anemia and weakness.

Feedlot Beef Cattle: Exposure-lack of shade and shelter, lameness and foot rot, liver disease from improper ‘fattening/finishing’ diets and lack of roughage.

Confined Dairy Cows: lack of exercise related lameness, metabolic, and liver diseases from high energy/concentrate diets and lack of roughage.

All the above concentrated animal feeding operations cause stress, distress, and increased disease susceptibility especially to enteric and respiratory infections, and to udder/mammary gland infections in dairy cows.

The following procedures need to be addressed and where appropriate, either phased out, or only the most humane methods permitted: Castrating, branding, and dehorning cattle without anesthetic; hot-iron de-beaking of chickens; disposal of unwanted chickens & pre-slaughter collecting and handling of poultry; tail docking and castration of piglets and lambs; tail docking of dairy cows; treatment of unwanted ‘bobby’ calves and ‘downer cows;’ and of sick and injured poultry and piglets. Use of the ‘Stock-still’ electrical immobilization of cattle should be prohibited. Humane methods for the mass ‘depopulating/killing of diseased livestock and poultry also need to be implemented.

Livestock and poultry transportation, handling, and slaughter methods need significant improvements in most counties. Dairy and beef cattle fed rations high in cereal grains are prone to acidosis, digestive and metabolic problems, and lameness from laminitis. Such diets create ideal conditions for the proliferation of E. coli 0157, thus putting consumers at risk (also from crops contaminated with infected manure and slurry run-off). Feeding a more natural, grass or hay-based diet results in a drastic reduction in E.coli 0157 within a few days. Regardless, Pfizer drug company began marketing a potentially high risk E.coli 0157 vaccine to the cattle industry in 2010, seeking to capitalize on yet another anthropogenic zoonosis.

Cruel, intensive confinement systems of livestock and poultry production, —concentrated/confined animal feeding operations, —are a legacy of our inhumanity. The price of CAFOs include major public health problems associated with the wholesale use of antibiotics to help these animals grow and be productive and stay alive, leading to the rise of highly resistant strains of bacteria. They cause widespread air, surface and groundwater pollution. World- wide, the livestock industry is the leading human-created cause of climate change/global warming.

It is notable that the United Nations Environment Programme’s international panel on climate change released a report on June 2nd, 2010 stating that lesser consumption of animal products is necessary to save the world from the worst impacts of climate change. ( .

As the global population surges towards a predicted 9.1 billion people by 2050, western tastes for diets rich in meat and dairy products are unsustainable, says the report. It states: “Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products. Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.” Agriculture, particularly meat and dairy products, accounts for 70% of global freshwater consumption, 38% of the total land use and 19% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, says the report. Produce from organically certified and free-range animals, are generally more humanely derived, and with less environmental harm and drug-dependence than similar produce from CAFOs.


  1. British Veterinary Association, Obstacles and welfare, Veterinary Record 2009, 165: p.513. See also the Farm animal Welfare council’s opinion on the welfare needs of dairy cows on p 514 of same journal edition, and the Food and Agriculture Organization’s report ‘Capacity building to implement good animal welfare practices,

  2. Narver, HC. Demographics, moral orientation, and veterinary shortages in food animal and laboratory animal medicine. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2007: 230:1798-1804.

  3. Time magazine, The real cost of cheap food, Aug 31, 2009 See also Steinfeld, H.P., Gerber, T., Wassenaar, V., et al (2006) Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. Rome. Food and Agriculture Organization

  4. Fox, Michael W. Agricide: The Hidden Crisis That Affects Us All. New York, Schoken Books, 1986.

  5. Larkin, M. Pfizer, AVMF partner to hand out hundreds of scholarships. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2009, 235: 1022-1023

  6. Spence, Des. It shouldn’t happen to a vet, British Medical Journal 2009;339:b4883.

  7. Nolen, R. S. More veterinary grads investing in their careers with additional training. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2009 235: 1016-1018

  8. .LaCroix, Jeffrey A. Is it time for limited licensure? J. Am Vet Med Assoc. 235: 1401, 2009

  9. Fox, Michael W. Bringing Life to Ethics: Global Bioethics for a Humane Society Albany, NY, State University of New York Press 2001

POSTSCRIPT Veterinarians’ Well-being: At Risk from Empathy? According to a Feb 13th 2015 Centers for Disease Control & Prevention Weekly Morbidity and Mortality Report Vol 64, p 131-132 by Randall J. Nett and associates, “Veterinarians are believed to be at increased risk for suicide compared with the general population.” They sent out a questionnaire that “asked respondents about their experiences with depression and suicidal behavior, and included standardized questions from the Kessler-6 psychological distress scale that assesses for the presence of serious mental illness…. Approximately 6.8% of male and 10.9% of female respondents were characterized as having serious psychological distress… compared with 3.5% of male and 4.4% of female U.S. adults, respectively.”

That they found almost one in 10 U.S. veterinarians might suffer from serious psychological distress and more than one in six might have experienced suicidal ideation since graduation makes me deeply concerned and wonder why. The challenges of diagnosing, treating and preventing various animal maladies coupled with financial constraints in a culture with a schizoid attitude toward animals (ranging from treating them as family members to mere commodities) may be overwhelming at times: And frustrating seeing the same conditions day after day with no significant advances in the prevention of illness and suffering. But above all I believe that veterinarians are generally more empathetic toward animals than most people in the general population. They, along with others on the front lines of animal protection such as animal sheltering and in-field animal rescue and wildlife conservation, take the brunt of society’s use and abuse of animals. This burden of empathy, combined with veterinarians’ clinical knowledge and greater understanding of how their animal patients can suffer, calls for greater public recognition and respect for the many contributions this profession provides for the good of the animals and society both at home and abroad.