Massachusetts Bill to Ban Extreme Confinement of Farm Animals Is Good for Animal and Human Health

by Joann M. Lindenmayer DVM, MPH

September 20, 2013

Pigs in crates
A Massachussetts bill seeks to ban extreme confinement of sows in gestation crates.

“You can’t have good human health without good animal health, and you can’t have good animal health without good human health” states Dr. James Harlan Steele, one of the three internationally-recognized pillars of Veterinary Public Health, a discipline defined by the World Health Organization. It’s important for legislators to keep Dr. Steele’s sage words in mind as the Massachusetts legislature considers prohibiting the use of veal crates and swine gestation crates from being allowed in Massachusetts--crates so narrow the animals in them cannot even turn around. A number of global health issues lie squarely at the interface between human and animal health. Foremost among them is zoonotic disease transmission from animals to people (as well as the reverse). Health care professionals, including veterinarians and physicians, have long recognized that stress suppresses individuals’ defense mechanisms against disease. Confining animals in small living spaces and crowding them contributes significantly to stress. Prolonged transport of cattle is associated with a respiratory disease of bacterial origin known colloquially as “shipping fever.” Commercial production of poultry in Southeast Asia played a critical role in maintenance and spread of the highly pathogenic avian influenza. The impact of stress on virulence and transmission of livestock zoonoses, especially those that are foodborne, to human populations has yet to be quantified. However, evidence is mounting that there is every reason to suspect it will be substantial.

These are only among the known zoonotic pathogens. More worrisome is the emergence of new zoonotic pathogens or new combinations of old ones. The speed with which these are identified has increased, attributable in part to intensive animal agriculture. According to Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, former director of the WHO, bacteria and viruses travel around the world almost as fast as money. Consider the stress-inducing conditions in which many farm animals live. Veal calves are confined to crates so small that the animals can’t turn around to groom themselves, adopt normal sleeping positions, or stand up or lie down without difficulty. For us, living like this would be similar to spending a large chunk of our lives in a space the length and width of a coffin. Sows kept on industrial farms give birth to five to eight litters over their lifespans, and during this time most of them spend 70-80 percent of their time in gestation crates 6.6 feet by 2 feet wide. Temple Grandin, Ph.D., a world renowned animal scientist, meat industry advisor and professor at Colorado State University, likened this to “asking a sow to live in an airline seat” and recommends that gestation crates be phased out. These are stressful conditions, indeed.

Concern about animal and human disease and the desire to improve animal welfare led to Canada’s recent proposal to eliminate the confinement of sows in gestation crates. This follows a European Union ban on continuous gestation crate confinement that went into effect in January 2013, legislation banning gestation crates in nine U.S. states including Rhode Island and Maine, and public commitments from more than 60 of North America’s largest pork buyers and producers to eliminate gestation crates from their supply chains and operations.

Considering all this, why in the world would Massachusetts permit the use of veal and gestation crates? Passing S. 741 is a no-brainer. According to Albert Schweitzer, philosopher, physician, musician, theologian, author and builder, “It seems almost something abnormal that over a portion of the earth’s surface nature should be nothing and man everything.” As a Massachusetts veterinarian myself, I believe we should heed these words and pass S. 741 to ensure that Massachusetts animals can continue to express at least some of their natural behaviors. In doing so, both human and animal health will win.

View the HSVMA support letter for S. 741, which has been signed by more than 215 Massachusetts veterinarians»

Dr. Joann Lindenmayer

Dr. Joann Lindenmayer is a veterinarian and a public health professional whose career in domestic and international settings has been dedicated to the principle that good animal health IS good human health. She implements this by educating veterinarians and human health professionals in the U.S. and elsewhere to consider the many physical and mental health interdependencies of animals and humans, research including measures to improve animal health records and the application of evidence-based medicine for the benefit of animal and human health, and advocating for better living conditions and quality of life for companion animals and livestock kept for research and food. She is the Director of the DVM-MPH track at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and a member of the Massachusetts Animal Coalition Board of Directors. She is the contented owner of five dogs and two cats, and she races dragon boats competitively in her leisure time.