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Tufts OpenCourseware
Author: Paul Waldau

An increasingly high profile subject in veterinary medicine is “public health.” Whose health is contemplated in this important phrase? Is it humans only, or are some, or even all, nonhumans contemplated in discussions about “public health”? Of course, many people assume that, quite naturally, nonhumans should be radically subordinated in any discussions of “public health.” The recently deceased Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick once described the prevailing philosophy in our culture as "utilitarianism for animals, Kantianism for people." Translated this means, “people are treated as important and valuable ‘in and of themselves,’ but nonhumans are fairly treated as having no inherent worth and even as mere things if that produces benefits for humans.”

Veterinary medicine, of course, has a different take on this subject, given that it is the profession most capable of knowing, understanding, and protecting nonhuman animals.

In this session, we touch on the basic issues raised by the emerging and increasingly important discussions regarding “public health.”

1. Readings

  • Frederick Leighton 2004, “Veterinary medicine and the life boat test: A perspective on the social relevance of the veterinary profession in the 21st century”

  • Hendrix CM, McClelland DL and I Thompson. A punch list for changing veterinary medicine's public image in the 21st century. JAVMA 2006; 228(4):506-10.

  • Noah DL, Grayson JK, and LC Caudle III. Ten great veterinary public health/preventive medicine achievements in the United States, 1901 to 2000. JAVMA 2000; 217(12):1834-6.

  • Hewson CJ and T Lang. Animal and human case for reforming current food policies. BMJ 2005; 331:1268 (Letters).

  • Salisbury R. New foundation will help bring two disciplines together. Ibid.

  • Schelling E, Wyss K, Bechir M, Moto DD, and J Zinsstag. Synergy between public health and veterinary services to deliver human and animal health interventions in rural low income settings. Ibid, page 1264-7.

  • Cowders J, McMenamin J, and B Reilly. Veterinary public health. Ibid, page 1213-14.

2. Reflection Journal Assignment

Due at beginning of next session

Looking Back —This question again focuses on distinctions among roles that can be taken by (1) you as an individual veterinarian, (2) veterinary education institutions, and (3) the veterinary profession as a whole.

What actions can each take to expand society’s understanding of the role of animals in public health?

Looking Forward —At the 2006 Annual Meeting of the AVMA, a resolution was proposed that contained the following language: “veterinarians have an ethical obligation to promote animal welfare; … in some instances, the economic priorities of animal industries may be in conflict with the welfare of animals; … [resolved that the veterinary profession] will place a higher priority on animal welfare when required to choose between animal welfare and economic considerations.”

Suppose you had a vote when this issue arose—how would you have voted on this resolution, and why?