The Future of the Veterinary Profession

By Michael W. Fox, BVetMed, PhD, DSc, MRCVS

May 8, 2012

Vet with dog fighting victim (credit: AJ Mast)
Compassion and veterinary medicine should come hand in hand.
AJ Mast

One reason for the veterinary profession’s current hard times and unclear future may be its historical double vision or conflicted mission. The profession seems torn between serving the best interests of animals, and serving the interests of its animal-owning clients and the larger society—both of which may not be in accord with those of the animals. The American Veterinary Medical Association was founded in 1863. And yet, its Veterinarian’s Oath included no reference to animal welfare "as a priority of the profession" until 2011.

I have long seen the profession torn between two often conflicting, but—I believe—resolvable forces and sets of values:

  1. concern and responsibility for animal suffering, health and welfare (the "calling" of most veterinary school applicants), and
  2. economic realities such as the cost of services performed, and the monetary, rather than the emotional (and other) value of animals.

However, I do find grounds for optimism in the emerging One Health movement,1,2 where human health and well-being are at last being linked to animal health and welfare, as well as to environmental and ecological health. But, for the One Health concept to be effectively implemented, the bioethics of equal consideration must be applied not only to humans, but also to our treatment of animals and the environment. This is in keeping with the moral imperatives of the animal rights and deep ecology movements, which have long been opposed by the biomedical, agricultural and other industries.2

Obligation to Advocate for Compassionate Care

In the Codex Veterinarius drafted by the German Veterinary Association for the Protection of Animals we find this statement:

Veterinary action for the welfare and protection of animals is guided by the principle of respect for life and the awareness that the animal has a dignity which is to be respected. Therefore protection and care for an animal cannot be dependent on its economical value. In situations of diverting interests between moral obligations and economical pressure it is essential to consider carefully the respect for life against the productive use of life in all its forms of existence… Considering carefully the opposing interests and needs, the interests of the human being should not automatically be considered to be more important than those of the animal... When in doubt veterinary surgeons should let themselves be guided by the principle: In dubio pro animale!3 (This idiomatic Latin phrase can be roughly translated as, "When in doubt, support the animals!")

Compassionate Care as a Basic Right and Responsibility

There is growing consensus that veterinarians have an ethical obligation to advocate for compassionate animal care, regardless of the context in which their services are applied. This is because of an emerging recognition that compassionate care is our fundamental human responsibility, and every animal’s deserved and basic right. Furthermore, compassionate care is vital to animals’ health, welfare, and physical and psychological well-being. It is as essential a component of contemporary veterinary medicine as caring for the land is a vital aspect of sustainable agriculture.

Among Animals, People and the Environment

Veterinarians have been seen as a unique association for millennia. As interlocutors among people, animals and their environments, veterinarians’ roles and knowledge—both empathic and scientific—have been highly valued by societies. Indeed, according to professor Calvin Schwabe in his book Cattle, Priests and Progress in Medicine,the earliest veterinarians were priest-healer members of ancient Egypt's many dynasties.

Challenges of Situational Ethics

Today, gender-linked differences in moral philosophy may be factors associated with current shortages of veterinarians in the food animal and laboratory animal medicine sectors.5 Veterinarians in companion animal practice, and also those dealing with "exotic" animals, face ethical dilemmas on a daily basis. One recent survey6 indicates "an urgent need for ethics educational tools and approaches specifically designed with veterinary surgeons in mind." The influence of vested corporate interests in veterinary schools has also increased significantly in recent years, and is now being questioned as a broader ethical issue.7

Student Debt Burden and Income-Challenged Community Access to Care

Lobbying for better funding from government, industry and non-profit sources for student scholarships or debt-forgiveness for pledging to work in much-needed sectors such as overseas aid and development, emergency services, and in low-income neighborhoods (like the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals in the U.K.) may be considered enlightened professional self-interest. However, we know that at the community level within the United States, as revealed in a recent report by The Humane Society of the United States entitled "Pets for Life―A New Community Understanding ," there is great need to remove cost barriers to animal care and veterinary services for economically blighted communities in order to improve their community animal health and reduce shelter overpopulation.

A New Professional Paradigm

Redefining the role of the veterinary profession in these times is critical to our profession’s future, and to civilization itself. Putting animals and the environment firstmay be in the enlightened self-interest of civil society, but doing so would be an admittedly improbable paradigm shift, considering the nature of human psychology. Establishing a higher priority of concern for wild and domestic animals and the natural environment over trivial and harmful human needs and demands would be a significant step toward attaining a more sustainable economy and a better world for us all. I believe it is our veterinary profession’s current challenge—and our duty—to apply our expertise in more effectively advocating for this new paradigm.

Dr. Michael W. Fox
Dr. Michael W. Fox


Dr. Michael W. Fox is a graduate of the Royal Veterinary College, London, and holds doctoral degrees in medicine and ethology/animal behavior from the University of London, England. He is author of over 40 books, writes the nationally syndicated newspaper column "ANIMAL DOCTOR," is a member of the British Veterinary Association, American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association and Honor Roll Member of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Contact Dr. Fox at [email protected]. For further discussions, visit his website at


  1. Burns, Katie, Spreading the one-health concept JAVMA 240:112-115, 2012.
  2. Fox, Michael W., Healing Animals & The Vision of One Health. CreateSpace books &, 2011.
  3. Burgermeister S, & Fikuart K, ALTEX. 15(4):209-212. 1998 Ethical guiding principles for veterinary behaviour with respect to the welfare and protection of animals. Tierärztliche Vereinigung für Tierschutz, D-Hamburg.
  4. Schwabe, Calvin, Cattle, Priests and Progress in Medicine, Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press 1978.
  5. Narver, Heather Lyons, Demographics, moral orientation, and veterinary shortages in food animal and laboratory animal medicine. JAVMA 230:1798-1804, 2007.
  6. Batchelor, C.E.M. & McKeegan, D.E.F. Survey of frequency and perceived stressfulness of ethical dilemmas encountered in UK veterinary practice, Vet Rec 170: 19-20, 2012.
  7. Dally, Michelle, Ethical considerations raised by the provision of freebies to veterinary students. JAVMA 238:1551-1554, 2011.
  8. Fox, Michael W. Animals and Nature First. CreateSpace books and 2011.