Animal ethics examines both human-animal relationships, and how humans should treat animals. Questions in animal ethics can be hotly contested as there is no general agreement about how we ought to engage with nonhuman animals.

Each context in which animals are used raises contentious ethical issues and difficult questions. For instance with respect to companion animals – is it right to keep animals as pets, and what obligations do owners have to their animals? In the case of production animals we can ask – how should we house animals that we will eat, and is it even appropriate to eat animals? For animals in the wild – what lengths should we go to to save animals that are injured, and is it okay to hunt wild animals? With respect to animals used in research and for teaching – is it right to kill animals for teaching, and is it appropriate to use our fellow primates in biomedical research? For animals used for work, sport, recreation or display – is it okay to kill animals which are unsuitable for the sports they are bred to participate in, and is it permissable to confine animals in zoos? In the case of aquatic animals – is it appropriate to keep large aquatic mammals in captivity, and given our growing knowledge of fish sentience, should we routinely kill and eat these creatures? These are just a sample of the many questions raised by our use of nonhuman animals.

As professionals who work in direct contact with animals and who have special knowledge regarding them, veterinarians may be well placed to make informed responses to these questions.

Ethical Theories

Ethical theories provide a systematic way of explaining and justifying moral decisions. They can help us work out what is the right thing to do and assist in understanding the ethical views and decisions of other people. It is important to realize, however, that no ethical theory is without shortcomings.

In animal ethics there are some ethical theories that are widely discussed. Two of the most well known are animal rights (also called deontology) and utilitarianism. Another theory which is often raised in the context of veterinary ethics is contractarianism. More recently there has been an interest in the development of relational theories.

Although it can be important for veterinarians to learn to identify different ethical theories and how to apply them, many people who teach animal ethics think it is more valuable to begin learning and teaching in this area by thinking through scenarios or cases, rather than by learning theories.

Being able to recognize when something is an ethical question or issue rather than a clinical one, is also an important skill for veterinarians to develop.

Important terms and concepts

Applied animal ethics

Applied animal ethics concerns the nature of the human-animal relationship and how humans should treat animals. Topics important to applied animal ethics include applied ethics, animal welfare, law, economics and conservation.

Professional ethics

Professional ethics describe the standards of behaviour which govern professional conduct. As professionals, veterinarians must exercise their knowledge of animals and animal welfare to ensure they fulfill their responsibilities to a number of stakeholders. These stakeholders include animals, clients, colleagues, the veterinary profession and the public. Here is the AVA’s code for professional conduct.

Science versus values

(Scientific) facts and values are different kinds of things, though both are important in decision-making in veterinary practice. Science is useful in describing, explaining and predicting the physical world, but values are important in determining what is the right thing to do. For instance, as a veterinarian knowledge of how to euthanize an animal is grounded in an understanding of animal welfare science, but a decision about whether to euthanize a healthy animal because an owner wants to go on holidays involves values.

Reasons why animal welfare matters

Animal welfare matters because it is central to professional practice for veterinarians. Without knowledge of, and skills in animal welfare, veterinarians cannot engage in appropriate practice. Growing public concern about animal welfare also makes it an important issue in practice.