As vet students, welfare is always being rammed down our throats – and rightly so (even after only two weeks of first year). As future veterinary professionals it will be part of our job to ensure the welfare of the animals entrusted to our care.
Deciding what is “the right thing” to do can often be tricky, as there is never a straight black and white answer. Knowing whether an animal’s welfare is at risk is often down to individual opinion and, therefore, relies on experience.
There is a famous quotation: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
I believe this applies to evaluating welfare. Often, from the outside, without understanding the reasons behind particular procedures or practices, it’s easy to think from a first impression that something is cruel or unnecessary. But, in reality, there is usually a good reason for these practices, particularly in the production industry.
In one welfare lecture, we were made to believe that keeping sows in farrowing crates was cruel. The sow has little room to lie down, she can’t turn round and may bite the bars of the crate in frustration, resulting in mouth sores. But what about the piglets she is about to farrow? It is their welfare that is protected by keeping her in the crate. The crate prevents her rolling on them, allowing them to suckle without the danger of getting squashed. What good is giving a sow more room if it results in half a litter of dead piglets?
On the same note, coming from a pig farming background, I have seen pigs kept in pens of about five, instead of staying in the open pen, opting themselves to lie in the feeding crates if they’ve been left open (not at feeding time). Confining a pig to a small space may seem cruel from the outside, but is it really, when the pigs will lie in feeding crates out of choice, probably to keep cool and avoid fighting with the others in the pen?
Another example of a misunderstood practice is twitching a horse. Twitches may be made of rope or metal, and can look horrific when being used, since they are twisted tightly around the horse’s muzzle.
An outsider would not understand that the twitch is designed to pinpoint a pressure point that induces release of endorphins. Consequently, this calms the horse and is a very useful technique when the horse is being difficult to handle during clipping or other veterinary procedures, and avoids the use of sedatives.
Assessment of welfare is very much based on individual opinion. Personally, I have had little experience with dairy farming so might at first think that some procedures are cruel when I set out on EMS in the summer. But it’s important to remember to stand back and understand the reasoning behind the actions of those who handle the animals every day before prejudging an establishment based on what you see or think you are seeing to begin with.