Welfare college receives provisional recognition

Veterinarians eager to watch specialty group evolve

August 16, 2012 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

Veterinarians interested in becoming board certified in animal welfare have until Nov. 1 to submit paperwork needed to take a 2013 examination for the American College of Animal Welfare (ACAW).

ACAW — founded to advance animal welfare through education, certification and scientific investigation — has received provisional recognition from the American Board of Veterinary Specialties (ABVS). The newly established specialty was approved Aug. 1 by the American Veterinary Medical Association's (AVMA) Executive Board.

The ABVS is an umbrella organization within the AVMA that recognizes veterinary specialties in the United States and awards diplomate status to veterinarians who complete post-graduate training, education and testing requirements in one or more of 22 specialty groups. The AVMA Executive Board makes all final decisions regarding the recognition of specialty organizations.  

News of the college’s enactment comes after months of political wrangling within the AVMA over whether the nation’s 28 veterinary medical programs had facilities to support advanced training in animal welfare. Officials questioned whether a welfare specialty would fulfill a need to improve veterinary medical services to the public. Objections also rested with the fact that some experts in animal welfare are non-veterinarians who might be precluded from earning board certification.

As it stands, ACAW specialty certification is not open to non-veterinarians, but they can become honorary members of the college, said Dr. Bonnie Beaver, president of ACAW’s organizing committee and an academician from Texas A&M University. In previous interviews with the VIN News Service, she estimated that the college might draw 250 members within its first three years. 

“We’re happy,” Dr. James Reynolds said of ACAW’s recognition. As one of the welfare college’s organizers, Reynolds believes the drive to start a specialty college in the polarizing field of animal welfare transcends politics.

Animal welfare is defined as the physical and psychological well-being of animals, measured via indicators such as behavior, physiology, longevity and reproduction. It’s the basis for all medicine, veterinary and human, he said. 

“We must understand an animal’s welfare in order to provide them with healthy lives," said Reynolds, a professor at Western University of Health Sciences. "There’s a lot of room for improvement and growth in the profession regarding animal welfare."

Dr. Elizabeth Anne Williams, a practitioner in Fayetteville, N.C., shares the sentiment. At the same time, she questions whether a specialty college involving welfare can operate apolitically to advance veterinary medicine for the benefit of animals. 

“I strongly feel that we do need more information to better guide welfare decisions, as I feel an overwhelming majority of the stances taken are based on aesthetics and not science,” Williams wrote in a discussion on the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession. “However, a majority of the ‘welfare interested’ veterinarians I have encountered have been of the aesthetics-driven, anti-agriculture, pro-TNR (trap-neuter-return), pro no-kill shelter, vegan lifestyle bent. I’m not particularly supportive of granting the title and authority of board specialist to people of that political agenda.”

She favors keeping livestock healthy and profitable to manage. 

“At this time, I do not feel that a welfare specialty would support (or even be neutral) on this issue,” Williams said. “Based on that, I’m not sure that the tradeoff will be worth the extra knowledge and pursuit of excellence that a specialty would give.

“I would love to be convinced otherwise,” she added. 

In 2004, the AVMA identified animal welfare as one of the top five critical issues affecting the veterinary profession. The AVMA Animal Welfare Division was formed a year later. Despite the attention to welfare concerns, ACAW has faced unique challenges on its road to recognition compared with other specialty colleges. One reason might be that animal welfare isn’t based solely on science, but because it's also tied up in ethics and opinions as diverse as the veterinarians who espouse them.

Welfare is more values driven, observes Dr. Barry Kipperman, a board-certified internist practicing in Dublin, Calif. 

“You could put three veterinarians in front of a single animal, and they might discern three different points of view as to whether or not the animal is having a good life,” he said.

Dr. Craig Datz, a board-certified nutritionist, questions whether a welfare specialty is needed considering that most veterinarians practice animal welfare on a daily basis. 

“Most of our specialties are copies from human medical colleges,” Datz noted. “Do you know any MDs that are human welfare specialists?” 

Kipperman counters that unlike doctors in human medicine, “veterinarians care for beings that can’t speak for themselves.” 

“Animals are as vulnerable or more vulnerable than children,” he said. “I think that for too long veterinarians have not been the go-to people when it came to animal welfare issues. One side of me thinks the profession is overdue.” 

The other side, Kipperman said, harbors mistrust for ACAW considering its “inauspicious beginning.” He refers to an early and now defunct ACAW requirement that forced potential candidates to pledge their support of the AVMA Animal Welfare Principles in order to earn status as a diplomate.

ACAW organizers repealed the sign-off requirement last November when critics came out in droves, calling it exclusionary and stifling.

For now, Kipperman plans to watch ACAW evolve before determining whether to pursue certification in animal welfare. 

“I think conceptually, it’s about time that veterinarians joined this welfare party,” he said. “But anytime you open a club, the first 10 members are very telling about what that club is meant to do. Are we going to see people who are on the AVMA’s Big Kahuna list be the first certified? Before I consider joining, they’re going to have to prove to me that they’re real and welcoming to independent thinkers.” 

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