Veterinarians work tirelessly to save the lives of animals, the majority working with companion animals. Day in and day out, they spend long hours caring for cats and dogs, other companion animals, too, often going to heroic measures to save them.
They have, after all, taken an oath created by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Part of it states: “Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.”
Yet for many veterinarians, their food choices do not reflect that oath, even though it does not specify companion animals. While they may not be consuming cats and dogs, they are most likely consuming other species like cows, chickens, and pigs. The irony, of course, is that these animals have the same wants and needs as the patients they treated that day. Call it speciesism, the mistaken belief that some species are more important than others, at its finest.
Of course, speciesism is a societal issue, but when those who believe that eating some animals but saving others is okay are the ones who have pledged to protect animals, the disconnect is mind-boggling, and it is an issue vegan veterinary professionals are becoming more vocal about. “Why don’t more veterinarians ask why they’re eating their patients?” says Ernie Ward. D.V.M., a plant-based veterinarian in Calabash, N.C., and author of The Clean Pet Food Revolution, who went vegan first for his health and then animals because of the question he just asked. “Why aren’t more vets vegan or at least more opinionated about why it’s okay to do every lifesaving measure for certain species but not others?” Answering that question is not easy and will require a shift among veterinary schools and veterinarians.
How veterinary schools may be promoting speciesism
Veterinarians are no different than other individuals in that they grow up in a world and probably households where eating meat is normal. “They’re not any less immune to the deep-rooted cultural messages we’ve all grown up with,” says Diana Laverdure-Dunetz, M.S., founder of Plant-Powered Dog and a vegan canine nutritionist in Delray Beach, Fla.
Trouble is, though, when they enter veterinary school, those notions are often reinforced. “There is a certain culture that exists in veterinary schools,” Ward says. “Although many will deny this, it is a speciest approach.”
Ward describes how animals like cats, dogs, birds, and horses are categorized as near-human, which means they are regarded as having feelings and being able to feel pain. “From day one of veterinary school, you’re taught to treat these animals like they’re little humans,” he says.
Not so for other animals. In many schools, when veterinary students do their large animal rotation, learning about animals in the food production chain, the views shift. “The language changes and you’re discouraged from saying things like ‘this animal is suffering’,” he says, adding that peer pressure also makes it difficult to speak up. “Although these animals are just as brilliant and loving as companion animals, veterinary students are asked to blind themselves to their suffering and emotional needs.”
That language shift is even more apparent when looking at some schools’ curriculums. At Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., for instance, two of its food tracks are labeled as food animals. “When you put animals in categories like this, it sends certain messages about how we view and value these animals, which translates into their care,” says Candace Croney, Ph.D., professor of animal behavior and well-being and director of the Center for Animal Welfare Science at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.
Language is not the only variable driving this speciest approach. Treatment of companion and food production animals also differs, especially when it comes to pain management. “Vet schools teach that if you can help mitigate pain, you can help the animal recover,” Ward says.
But “them” refers mainly to companion animals, and when Ward as a student questioned why they were not helping reduce the pain of injured food production animals, he was dismissed. Discussion about the pain these animals felt was shifted, and the redirect was shocking, his professors lamenting about how pain and suffering would decrease the animals’ ability to gain weight or grow. “It revolved around the economic, not the emotional, toll, and instead of discussing their pain, we focused on their economic value and how quickly they could grow or how you could slow disease,” he says. “It’s literally a type of brainwashing, as nobody would stand for a cat or dog having a gaping wound and not treating that animal.”
This is a tough lesson today’s veterinary students have to swallow. “Although we are never taught to provide a lower standard of care based on the species, the evolution of a bovine and canine, for instance, has been markedly influenced by humans—one was bred for companionship and protection and the other for food,” says Hannah DeZara, a vegan veterinary student in the class of 2023 at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., who does not believe her school is inherently speciest in its veterinary education “This notion of putting roles on species still exists today, and because of this, the way we decide their treatment plan is still in part dependent on the role they play in society, which is just a hard truth.”
The rise of animal welfare and ethics courses in schools
Some change is underfoot, though, as more veterinary schools are introducing animal welfare and ethics into their curriculum, some even offering classes in these topics. “Ten years ago, I would have said there are relatively few to very few colleges with even one course on animal welfare,” Croney says. “But when the AVMA oath came out, schools started putting more emphasis on animal welfare.”
All students at Colorado State, for instance, are required to take an animal welfare class, making it one of the only veterinary schools in the country to offer this as part of its core curriculum. Topics include everything from zoo animal welfare to foie gras production along with welfare being an essential aspect of a veterinarian’s obligations.
Yet classes do not have animal rights guest speakers or lectures dedicated to veganism, something DeZara does not believe veterinary schools bear a responsibility to teach. “Being a vegan or meat-eater does not make you a better veterinarian,” she says. But she does believe animal welfare, which dovetails with animal rights, should be an integral part of the education, which can then help veterinarians decide whether a plant-based diet is best for them.
While animal welfare is one thing, animal ethics is another, and that is one topic schools are not addressing as well, something Croney hopes will change, as animal ethics drives her classes. “There is a subjective notion of what’s good and what’s less good so how do you determine what’s the right and wrong treatment of animals?” she says. “Science can answer many useful questions, but it can’t answer the questions challenging us today.”
Her classes explore major philosophies relating to the ethical treatment of animals, and veganism and speciesism are part of that discussion. Yet rather than teaching students to take a specific stance, she encourages them to examine issues objectively. “I don’t teach students what to think but how to think,” she says. For instance, when it comes to issues about eating animals, they examine why people eat meat, what the arguments are for eating and not eating animals, whether it is right to raise animals for food, whether animals feel pain, whether there are degrees of sentience, and whether it is ethically consistent to say you care about animals and their welfare and then eat them.
Teaching these topics is not easy, and they can often cause tension among the staff. “These issues come at the expense of things that are critically important to the practice of veterinary medicine, which is why some veterinary schools have limited or no dedicated coursework on these topics,” Croney says. These topics also challenge what many of the veterinary teaching staff have been taught, and many staff members become defensive when their long-held beliefs are questioned.
Resistance is also real in the veterinary community. Just ask Richard Pitcairn, D.V.M., Ph.D., Arizona-based veterinarian and author of Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Cats & Dogs, who hosts a yearly conference for veterinarians where all food is vegan. “Some will not attend anymore because of it,” he says. “Others, however, have changed their diet as a result.”
So should veterinarians be vegan?
While it is important to examine the role a veterinarians’ education may play in shaping his or her philosophies, there is an even more pressing question and that is whether veterinarians have a professional responsibility to be vegan. If they have sworn to protect animals, should they be eating animals when statistics show that 97 to 99 percent of the meat in the U.S. diet comes from factory farms where animals endure a lifetime of suffering?
This controversial question does not have an easy answer. “Because many veterinarians are employed in food animal production, that’s a tough sell, and I do not believe our oath requires this,” says Peter Soboroff, D.V.M., owner and director of New York Cat Hospital in New York City, who follows a pescatarian diet and acknowledges that food animal production is an ugly business. “Veterinarians are doing their best to ensure the health and well-being of those animals, but there is only so much you can say because these animals are still on their way to slaughter.”
Yet for some, the cognitive dissonance and disassociation is alarming, which is why Laverdure-Dunetz recently penned an open letter to veterinarians, asking them why they are not vegan. “I wanted to remind them of what I consider are their obligations not just to companion animals but all the animals they swore to protect,” she says.
Of course, diet is an individual choice, and nobody can tell anybody else what to eat, something Ward recognizes. But regardless of what they put on their plate, he wants veterinarians to be a louder voice for those who cannot speak, especially animals in factory farms. “It is our moral and professional responsibility to speak for all animals,” he says, adding that he has had veterinarians call him a quack because he is challenging the notion of killing animals for food. “These animals deserve to be treated compassionately and humanely, something most of the world agrees with, and in being better stewards of animal welfare, veterinarians should only condone the humane treatment of animals.”
The same goes when veterinarians are tasked with inspecting factory farms only to report that the animals are doing well. “Consumers are being sold this romantic vision of small family farms where animals are frolicking, but that’s disconnected from reality,” Ward says. “We are stuck with this legacy of food animal production that has morphed into this inhumane factory farming scheme, and that needs to change.”
If veterinarians continue to turn a blind eye to the abuse factory farmed animals suffer and not only support but also allow these practices to persist, they may be risking their credibility. “The public will wonder if they can trust veterinarians anymore,” Ward says.
Instead, he suggests that veterinarians start asking questions like if animals feel pain, what the emotional ability of animals is, and how their welfare is being preserved, even how to make factory farming more humane. “If every vet can say they’re treating cows, pigs, and chickens the same way they’re treating cats and dogs—if every vet could say that every animal killed for food is treated just as compassionately as every dog and cat, we’ll have raised the bar of humane treatment to an astronomical level,” he says. And it is starting, given that a group of over 2,900 veterinary professionals and advocates recently petitioned the AVMA to prevent a brutal practice called ventilation shutdown on factory farms.
It would also help if veterinary schools placed greater emphasis on animal welfare and animal rights. “If from day one veterinary schools took the approach that all animals feel pain, all animals have the capacity for emotions and all animals deserve the basic tenets of care, that would change the next generation of veterinarians,” Ward says.
In the end, becoming vegan still remains a personal decision, but it is one these experts hope veterinarians will consider. After all, as future veterinarian DeZara says, “A vegan lifestyle coincides with a lot of the values of veterinarians, and at the end of the day, we all just want to save animals while promoting animal health, public health, and welfare.”
Award-winning journalist/author Karen Asp specializes in fitness, health, nutrition, travel and animals. She’s a VegNews contributing writer and Better Homes & Gardens columnist who also writes for Eating Well, Forks Over Knives, O, Real Simple, Women’s Health, Prevention, Reader’s Digest, USA Today, etc. She’s certified in plant-based nutrition and serves as PETA vegan mentor and board member with Uplands PEAK Sanctuary for farmed animals.