AVMA updates feral cat policy

Euthanasia clause attracts contentious debate among veterinarians

January 26, 2016 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

VIN News Service Photo
Several crumpled and color-coded drafts of the AVMA policy on free-roaming abandoned and feral cats were passed among delegates to illustrate points of agreement and specific requests by feline welfare advocates as well as avian and wildlife conservationists. Sections in green represent points of agreement between the parties, while sections in pink reflect statements proposed by feline welfare advocates. The euthanasia clause is highlighted blue to show that avian and wildlife advocates wanted that statement included.
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The American Veterinary Medical Association does "not oppose" the consideration of euthanasia to manage some free-roaming and feral felines, according to a new policy on one of the most contentious animal welfare topics in veterinary medicine — the control and care of stray cats. 

"The AVMA recognizes that managed colonies are controversial," states the AVMA's policy on feral and free-roaming abandoned cats. "… For colonies not achieving attrition and posing active threats to the area in which they are residing, the AVMA does not oppose the consideration of euthanasia when conducted by qualified personnel, using appropriate humane methods as described in the AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals."

That paragraph appears at the end of the two-page document, which the AVMA House of Delegates adopted Jan. 9 during the policymaking group's annual meeting in Chicago. It's supported by avian and wildlife conservationists who say free-roaming felines have been found to wreak havoc on bird and small mammal populations. 

All AVMA policies are reviewed for possible changes on a five-year cycle; stakeholder groups have been reviewing and revising the AVMA's policy on feral and free-roaming cats since 2013. 

House delegates vigorously debated the topic during several breakout meetings in Chicago, with some arguing that the policy's euthanasia clause is at odds with the Veterinarian's Oath to protect animal health and welfare. Other delegates noted that "euthanasia" did not appear in the policy's previous version, and its inclusion makes it seem as though the AVMA condones the culling of stray cats.

Dr. Katherine Knutson, alternate delegate representing the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), believes the euthanasia clause ultimately will harm the profession. "We feel this really will do damage to our reputations as veterinarians," she said.

Even so, euthanasia sometimes is necessary to control diseased populations, much like with deer and elk herds, countered Dr. Michael Ames, alternate delegate from Arizona. 

"In a state where plague is an issue among feral cats, (this resolution) implies that euthanasia is the worst thing that can happen to a cat," he said. "Sometimes life is ugly. ... I think (euthanasia) needs to be left as an option."

Dr. Steven Wills, Kentucky’s alternate delegate, added: "I don’t think anyone here wants to euthanize feral cats, but if you take that off the table, there are implications."

Not doing so, others warned, would invite public scrutiny.

"Zealots will read this — that the AVMA does not oppose euthanasia — and turn it into the assumption that the AVMA condones euthanasia," Dr. Link Wellborn, AAHA delegate, said on the House floor. "I see no reason to change the policy and invite a firestorm."

A pointless firestorm at that, some delegates reasoned, considering that government authorities are not governed by AVMA policies when it comes to making decisions about feral cat populations.

"Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what we say," Rosemarie Strong, Oklahoma’s alternate delegate, stated in a breakout meeting on the topic. "They are going to do what they want in their own county."

Given the discontent over the resolution, Dr. Tim Fleming, alternate delegate from Mississippi, posed that it needed more work before any vote could take place.

Pressing for a vote, AVMA officials noted that the new feral cat policy resulted from two years of wrangling in several stakeholder committees between wildlife conservationists and feline welfare advocates.

AVMA Past-president Dr. Ted Cohn pressed for a vote rather than a rewrite. The policy, he said, has been "painstakingly looked at."

"This policy has been reviewed for the last two years, which then created a working group specifically for this topic," he explained to delegates in the meeting. "Then it was presented to the animal welfare committee, which worked on it more and sent it to the Board of Directors for their comments and review and had hours of discussion.

He added: "The wisdom, or lack thereof, of the Board of Directors, was to send it here. So it’s in your lap now to do as you see fit. The membership has spoken fairly loudly over the years that they want the AVMA to be more outspoken about animal welfare issues."

On the House floor, delegates attempted to make last-minute alterations to the resolution, which failed. Dr. Robert Groskin, representing the Association of Avian Veterinarians, asked that the AVMA support the option of placing free-roaming cats in enclosed facilities to minimize the mobility of wildlife and promote the health of feral felines.

The idea was rejected for being "out of scope."

Lastly, Rhode Island alternate delegate Catherine Lund made an impassioned speech, asking her House colleagues to kill the resolution because it’s "contentious."

"I believe we can have a better product," she said. "I believe this will have unintended consequences for the profession and believe that needs to be looked at soberly."

She later added: "I’d like to speak to the heart of our organization … I’m a feline practitioner and I’m asking you guys for your help and understanding. It’s not a change in policy, it’s a change in public perception … that we veterinarians are advocating the euthanasia of healthy cats."

A majority in the House ultimately disagreed. The room erupted in applause after passing the AVMA’s new policy by 94.2 percent.

Creating an email system

In other business, house delegates also passed a resolution to spend between $115,000 and $210,000 to set up a blast-email system that would allow them to easily message all their constituents twice a year. The goal is to increase communication between AVMA members and their representatives. Maintenance costs for the program would run between $65,000 and $160,000 a year.

Some scoffed at the price tag. "How on earth could it cost $60,000 or whatever to do two emails a year?" asked Dr. Elizabeth Hardie, a delegate representing the American Association of Veterinary Clinicians.

"I have learned about the process and it’s a lot more complicated than I ever dreamed," responded Dr. David Granstrom, the AVMA's chief operating officer.

Robust membership numbers, finances

AVMA finances and membership are at an all-time high, leaders reported. The official member count as of Dec. 31 was 88,122. "That's almost 1,600 more than the same time last year," AVMA CEO Dr. Ron DeHaven said.

AVMA Treasurer Dr. Barbara Schmidt reported that the organization's year-end finances included $35,643,390 in revenue and $35,535,890 in expenses, leading to a surplus. "The AVMA is financially strong," she said.

Schmidt noted that the majority of AVMA income is derived from member dues, a proportion she'd like to see shift more toward non-dues revenue. "Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to rely on member dues to this extent, over 70 percent?"

Last year, AVMA investments earned $4.4 million, bringing the organization's total reserve fund to $39.9 million. Some of the money is being spent on a strategic planning project to improve the value of AVMA membership and the group's market share.

Schmidt said that surveys of AVMA members show that they want to see more efforts in advocacy, accreditation and economic reports. "The AVMA strives to be the leading resource and support center for veterinarians," Schmidt said. "... What do we do? Protect, promote and advance the profession with the best tools and career resources."

She added: "We are all helping build a stronger, more focused and more relevant AVMA for our over 88,000 members."

Next up in economics

Four reports are anticipated to come from the AVMA Economics Division in 2016. The topics include an overview of the AVMA Economic Summit; the education market; the market for veterinarians; and the market for veterinary services. According to AVMA economist Michael Dicks, the reports will be free to AVMA members, unlike the division's previous reports.

In other research projects, Dick has invited the American Pet Products Association to link up to conduct a pet demographics survey in 2017.

Historically, the AVMA and APPA have done separate periodic surveys to collect data on U.S. pet ownership demographics and numbers of pets. The study results sometimes diverge markedly. In their most recent editions, the AVMA found that dog and cat ownership in the United States was on the wane, whereas the APPA found pet ownership in the country at a record high. The numbers of dogs and cats they counted differed by millions.

"So we've asked APPA to get everyone together to do one survey and smaller surveys for consistency," Dicks said. "We're going to be taking a really hard look at consumer demand."

Capitol Hill report

The passage by Congress of an omnibus spending bill in December brought good news for the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP), which received a $5 million allocation for 2016, reported Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, director of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division. "Over 300 veterinarians have been placed in shortage areas," he said.

The Veterinary Services Grant program, or VSGP, received a $2.5 million appropriation from Congress, which funded the program for the first time. The program is a competitive research and education granting initiative designed to relieve veterinarian shortage situations and support veterinary services. It’s intended to complement the VMLRP and similar state-funded programs by providing funding to participating veterinarians.

The VSGP was authorized to receive $10 million annually by Section 7104 of the Agricultural Act of 2014; however lawmakers did not immediately appropriate the funds. That changed in 2015.

"The (allocation) will give USDA time to start regulations for the program, and hopefully they’ll start issuing grants," Lutschaunig said.

Full disclosure?

Voting by the House became more transparent during this year's meeting.

Rather than keep the electronic balloting process completely secret, AVMA officials assigned each state a numerical code and revealed the delegates' votes on a screen during the meeting. Participants and audience members could discern the voting records of elected officials, provided they knew the assigned codes. A decoding key was not offered to audience members. 

How delegates vote in elections will remain confidential.

Accreditation revisited

The AVMA's accreditation arm, the Council on Education, will face a U.S. Department of Education panel this summer in hopes of earning re-recognition as the nation's sole accreditor of veterinary education — a distinction that's been in trouble since 2012, when the government received hundreds of complaints from veterinarians alleging that the COE was plagued by cronyism, a lack of transparency and conflicts of interest.

Since then, the USDE panel has twice ordered the COE to make changes. Dr. Karen Brandt, director of the AVMA Education and Research Division and staff liaison to the COE, said to House delegates that the COE issued a report to USDE on Oct. 9, outlining its compliance with the agency's directives. That report, along with the COE's status, will be reviewed by the USDE panel during a June public hearing near Washington, D.C.

Brandt noted that the profession will have a chance to weigh in once the compliance report is made public: "There will be, as always, a period of public comment ..." she said.

In the meantime, Brandt said, officials will review whether to continue hosting COE listening sessions, which were set up in response to a USDE order that the AVMA and COE reach out to critics.

The first listening session was held in January 2015 during the North American Veterinary Conference. Others have appeared at several subsequent conferences. The final listening session on the schedule is in July during the AVMA Annual Convention in San Antonio, Texas. After that, Brandt said, the AVMA will "re-evaluate the cost-effective value of continuing to hold those sessions."

Apart from the listening sessions, the 20-member COE is working on ongoing accreditation activities. "It's business as usual for the council," Brandt said. Next on the agenda is a review of a budding veterinary medical program at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Brandt noted that term limits of three COE seats are up in coming months. Filling one of those seats is the responsibility of an Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges selection committee. The AAVMC, a membership body representing veterinary academia, took on a greater role inside the COE in response to government concerns that AVMA political leaders might overly influence how the accrediting body operates.

Terms for the other COE seats — one representing private-mixed clinical practice and one representing post-graduate education — expire in July. Interested candidates have until Feb. 15 to apply.

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