I am a fourth year veterinary student. This month, I’m rotating through Cornell’s Equine and Farm Animal Hospital, where I care for food animals like pigs, cattle, goats and even sheep. The approach is different from treating the family Labrador, but the goals are often the same — to quote part of the Veterinarian’s Oath, “the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering.” The apparent paradox is not lost on me. Though I’ll wake up at 2 a.m. and rush to the hospital for a cow with a uterine torsion, I have no qualms going to Five Guys for a burger at the end of the day. As veterinarians, we are the only health professionals who eat our patients.
I enjoy eating meat. Whether or not you choose to eat meat yourself, production animals are absolutely vital to the global economy, enhancing quality of life for billions of people. Aside from food and fiber, vaccines are often incubated in chicken eggs, and many common pharmaceuticals are derived from pigs or cattle. Practically every medical product used today was tested in animal models during its development. Animal-derived ingredients are in your electronics, your toothpaste, your cosmetics — in the modern world, it’s ubiquitous.
However, the end does not necessarily justify the means. So how do I — having dedicated my career to their welfare and the relief of their suffering — justify eating and using animals?
The United States is home to 90 million cattle and 70 million pigs. The vast majority of these animals are raised in production systems and slaughtered at maturity for food. However, a cow doesn’t know she will be slaughtered — she exists in the present, experiencing life as any other animal would. I’m no philosopher, but here’s my nod to Bentham’s utilitarianism: life is generally a positive experience for animals, as long as suffering is minimized. If we didn’t eat production animals, most of them simply wouldn’t exist, because breeding and raising them would not be economically feasible. If we didn’t eat them, tens of millions of lives wouldn’t be lived. However, this means the ethical system that allows us to slaughter animals hinges on our ability to provide them with a humane existence. That’s partly my job as a veterinarian, and it’s where this topic gets sticky.
On the emotionally charged subject of animal welfare, facts and misinformation can be frantically jumbled. The media is rife with allegations of animal abuse and the horrors of factory farming, but exemplary animal husbandry doesn’t make headlines. It’s easy to believe that inhumane practices are the norm; many of my colleagues came to vet school with this tragically skewed perception of the industry. But now, having spent countless hours evaluating patients in a variety of production animal facilities, we have the training and experience to know better. For example, cows at Cornell’s teaching dairy have deep sand beds, ample room to move around and socialize and even automatic back scratchers. Happy animals are productive animals, and productive animals make farmers money.
When stress does occur in production animals, it is not only a welfare concern, but also an economic one. Stress induces cortisol production, a hormone that reduces immunity, inhibits growth and shuts down non-essential functions like meat and milk production. Cornell research demonstrates that dairy cattle with lameness show a 20-liter average drop in milk production in the two weeks following their diagnosis. Heeding the obvious financial consequences of stress, animal husbandry research is largely focused on increasing animal comfort, spearheaded by animal welfare experts such as Temple Grandin.
Be careful not to apply anthropomorphic standards to animal husbandry. Activists often cite indoor confinement of dairy cows as an example of abuse, but studies show that when given a choice, cows often prefer to stay inside, where they can escape the elements and the irritation of biting flies. Farrowing crates for pigs are vilified in the media, but in free stalls, sows will routinely crush their piglets. Examples of misperceptions abound and are too numerous to debunk in one op ed. Animal welfare is a science, and in the eyes of this veterinary student, it has made leaps and bounds in recent decades. Our production animals are happier, healthier and more efficient than ever before.
As veterinarians, we are often reminded that what matters is not the length of an animal’s life, but its quality. In exchange for what they provide, we give production animals food, water, shelter and veterinary care — not to mention comfortable lives largely free from predation, parasitism and disease. So don’t feel guilty the next time you buy a pair of shoes, brush your teeth or chow down on a Five Guys burger. You helped sponsor an animal life. If you’re an animal lover like me, that’s a good thing.
Alexander Thomson graduated in 2013 and is currently a DVM candidate in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.