Animal sentience workshop

Virgina Williams

Soulless machines to sentient beings – what does sentient mean for veterinarian's treatment of animals (15:23)

[This video was filmed during a workshop in front of an audience. The speaker stands at a speaker’s podium and talks into a microphone. Sometimes, she looks or points to a screen with slides containing information to support her talk. The slides aren't shown in the video.]

Virginia Williams: Yes I am speaking from a vet's perspective, also I was asked at the last minute to add in a little bit about research, testing and teaching. So although this looks like it's just about vets, well it's still about vets I suppose. Soulless machines. I'm going back to Rene Descartes who I have a slightly different slant on than Mark did, because Rene Descartes saw, although he was a very famous philosopher and I think therefore I am and all that stuff, he saw animals as soulless machines and that couldn't feel pain. To the extent that he took his wife's pet dog, nailed her down on the dissecting table and dissected her alive. Not his wife, his wife's dog, and just discounted all the screams and noises that were coming from the dog as just reactions that didn't have anything to do with pain at all.

So I do think we've come quite a long way since then. We know that the nervous systems of most of the animals we treat as veterinarians are essentially similar to our own. We know they feel pain and we know that they're sentient. I think Gwyn talked this morning about how, from an early age she thought, she thought of animals as being sentient in the terms that we're thinking about that at the moment and I think that's so of veterinarians as well. It is unfortunate that although most of us went into veterinary science because we have a love of and empathy with animals, our animals don't always think of us in quite the same way.

In fact we're probably the last person they really want to see. But yes, I mean I think a lot of animals really don't, I'll just go onto the next slide, they don't always want to be, the smell of the clinic and all this, maybe a long plastic glove that's the kind of thing that really they don't like us for and we do things to them that really they may not like. Even though in this one here he's actually put it in a local before he does something that would hurt more if he didn't put the local in.

So just back here, the NZVA does have, has thought about sentience, and has written about it. We saw that in Ian's talk, so that's something that they've taken on board really fast. But when we think about sentience, alongside all the things that we do to animals that they might not like, we can also maximize positive treatment experiences. Because the essence of our profession really is to make sure that animals live healthy, happy, productive, stress-free lives and it's really what we're after. Minimising the negative and maximising the positive.

Disease control is a major one for us of course. You cannot be having positive experiences if you're sick and there are all these other things that veterinarians do in terms of actually helping animals be healthy and helping their owners to actually make sure of that. Having well-trained staff in the vet clinic is an absolute must.

Oh what did I do.

So one of the major things that we can do is the minimisation of pain. When I first trained as a veterinarian quite a long time ago we certainly were taught about minimising pain and pain relief but when I got into practice the general rule was that a little bit of pain after an operation was good because it kept the animals still and there was less of a chance of the breakdown of the wound, which I think is probably an absolute indictment on surgical technique, but nevertheless that was kind of the thing that was happening at the time. Once I got into practice there just wasn't any pain relief going on very much at all. It's a bit different now but not entirely.

There was a paper of a survey of equine veterinarians published in the New Zealand Veterinary Journal 2010 by Natalie Waren, I thought Natalie might have been here but she isn't unfortunately, Professor of Animal Welfare, on the use of analgesics and horses. And the procedure that was given that was the most painful was potential surgical colic, which you can imagine is a very, very painful problem. 82 percent of the respondents scored this, on a pain scale of 1 - 10, scored this above 8. Sixteen percent put it in the 4 – 7 range and 2 percent inexplicably put it in the 1 - 3 range, which is quite a variation really I mean you see most of them up the top but to have two vets saying its 1 - 3. Fortunately they all gave them pain relief so at least that was covered. But it was really quite a surprise to find that range. But pain relief had certainly come a long way and multimodal analgesia is standard, is in use in practice now. But treating animals for pain is only one thing that we're looking at.

Another thing is to maximise positive experiences and one of the things that that does get veterinarians going is the breeding of animals with conformational disorders. Too many of our purebred animals, particularly dogs and cats, but also others like miniature horses, have compromised lives because of poor conformation or inherited disease. While genetic testing for the latter is coming along in leaps and bounds, we still have too many people breeding animals to a defined structural standard that's not good for their welfare. Now the New Zealand Kennel Club has done a lot of work in this area they have an accredited breeder scheme but the majority of their breeders do not belong to that scheme and there's also a lot of breeding that goes on well outside the realms of the New Zealand Kennel Club. And we were continually getting brachiocephalic dogs with compromised respiratory function and this is an area where veterinarians can really work quite hard on their clients and point out that the deficiencies I suppose of, and the ongoing costs they will incur with these kind of animals.

Somebody talked about obesity before, I got these off the internet. The picture of this cat up here was labelled our happy cat, so that's not seen as anything there's anything being wrong with that cat, that's our happy cat. In fact there was another cat that was so enormously more grossly obese than that, that I thought maybe it's been photo-shopped and I thought I wouldn't put that one up but it was just truly, and the same goes for the pony there was another pony that I just couldn't believe what I was seeing so I thought perhaps you wouldn't believe me either. So many owners are blind to this problem they just will not see it and I think it is a difficult one to deal with but it's an area that's really important but because of course these animals have compromised health and a shortened lifespan and it's just not good for them, diabetes etc.

A good death, euthanasia. That dog is my dog it's not dead, she's just lying on her back grinning really but this is another area where veterinarians can really make a difference in terms of ensuring that sentience is accounted for when is the right time for an animal to be euthanized. The interests of the patient have to be prioritised. When is the life, through illness or age, not worth living anymore and there does come a time, I mean I'm personally a great fan for human euthanasia, so you can see that I would also be happy to, you know of people that are ready. I can hear giggles in the background. I'm not about to come down and euthanise people [laughter] but it's a real skill to work with clients to find the right time to actually encourage or suggest euthanasia for an animal. And the real skill is in getting the people to decide that they decided for themselves. So that's a little bit about veterinarians.

Of course veterinarians are also working in the area of research, they're working as animal welfare officers and NZVA representatives on Animal Ethics Committees. In fact we had we had a meeting yesterday of a group of those particular veterinarians who are making a real contribution in the areas of making sure that sentience is allowed for within the research testing and teaching arena as well. But just for those of you who may not be quite so familiar with this area, there is a special part of the Animal Welfare Act, part six, which allows deliberate harm to be done to animals as long as it's gone through a real set of criteria. And that's basically a cost-benefit analysis where the cost to the animals has to be outweighed by the benefits of whatever the research is going to be. So, this kind of research can only be done under codes of ethical conduct, that are approved by the government and anything that's going to be done to the animals has to be approved by an animal ethics committee which has three independent members on them.

And the animal ethics committees are all regularly reviewed. There's also the three Rs; reduction, refinement and replacement and Grant talked quite a bit about replacement this morning of the different things that are coming in so that we can stop using animals as much as possible. But I'd also like to point out that in New Zealand, most of the animals that are used, or the majority of animals that are used in research, testing and teaching go back to the farm afterwards and are sentient on the farm, because at least 65 percent of the animals we use are farm animals, and most of those, 98 percent I think, remain alive at the end of the at the end of the experimentation or research. But without a doubt there are animals that suffer for research, testing and teaching.

And I would suggest that with the incorporation of sentience there's a higher bar. We've already got a higher bar set because when you're doing things like this on the farm, you can just go ahead and do it, this is without animal analgesia, disbudding without analgesia. If you're doing that under a research protocol you have to have ethical approval. So although it's a normal farming practice stricter things apply within the research centre.

I suppose the area that is most contentious is the one on about trying to find more humane areas of, methods of pest control, particularly now that we're aiming for Predator Free 2050. I think that because we want to save our endangered wildlife, this is something where the cost-benefit has been weighed, has been in favour of finding ways to kill sentient animals, so that we can save other sentient animals. This work all has to be approved by Animal Ethics Committees, just as I said.

The other area that's of major concern for me is impoverished environments for laboratory animals. Although we've got enriched environments for some, a lot of animals live in impoverished ones like this. And we've just discovered that actually these little red shelters that are all over the place actually change the biology of the animals so that they're actually not good research animals anyway. And euthanasia again, carbon dioxide euthanasia is one that I have real problems with, it's not euthanasia it's not a pleasant death for all these reasons here.

So euthanasia seems like a good time to stop, particularly seeing as you're standing up there. So I apologise if that was a quick run-through but I had a bit of a double whammy to do there. Okay so that's me.

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Last reviewed: 22 Nov 2021