Veganism and the Veterinary Profession: A Critical Contemporary Debate

In The Lord God Made Them All (1981), upon resuming work in the North Yorkshire countryside at the end of World War 2, having served in the RAF, James Herriot is reminded of the many inconveniences associated with his job as a veterinarian. After a hectic morning tending farmed animals, he eagerly anticipates Sunday lunch comprising traditional roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. As his wife, Helen, pours the gravy, described as “a rich brown flood with the soul of the meat in it and an aroma to dream of”, the telephone rings and his meal is interrupted by a farmer concerned about a lame cow. Herriot is arguably the most famous vet in the world whose legacy lives on through the semi-autobiographical literature penned by real life veterinarian James Alfred Wight (1916-1995) and contemporary television series such as The Yorkshire Vet (2015 –), which features Herriot trainee, Dr. Peter Wright. Wight’s many novels about life as a country vet in the first half of the 20th century include If Only They Could Talk (1970) and All Things Wise and Wonderful (1977) and spawned the All Creatures Great and Small book, film, and television series franchise.

Contesting Herriot as the world’s best-known veterinarian is Dr. Dolittle, the fictional creation of English author Hugh Lofting (1886-1947). Like Herriot in Wight’s novels, in The Story of Doctor Dolittle,(1920) and The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (1922) the eponymous veterinarian eats meat. Long before Wight lamented ‘if only they could talk’, Lofting imagined that nonhuman animals could indeed communicate with humans, but, of course, not in the sophisticated ways in which we now know that they can (see Meijer, 2016, 2019). The embedded anthropocentrism in these narratives is evident in the proposition that ‘the Lord God made them all’, all the while granting humans dominion over them (see Scully, 2003), and through the emphasis on nonhuman animals’ apparent lack of linguistic ability, another nod to ‘human exceptionalism’.

Of course, Wight and Lofting began writing, and set their novels, in timespans prior to contemporary knowledge about the damaging environmental and animal welfare impacts of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and dangers of GHG (greenhouse gas) and before the emergence of social justice movement organisations such as ALF (Animal Liberation Front) and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). While vegetarianism as a concept and practice was long-established and well-known, the term ‘vegan’ was not coined until 1944. Nevertheless, as cultural narratives, the worlds of Herriot and Dolittle aptly reflect the historical embeddedness of veterinary medicine within the welfarist paradigm; that is, the view that humans can use and consume nonhuman animals so long as they are ‘treated well’.

Of course, it is important not to view the fictional worlds of Herriot and Dolittle anachronistically, but they are, nonetheless – like all cultural narratives – useful for examining and observing socio-cultural change. For example, in Doctor Dolittle, the 1967 film version of Lofting’s veterinary-centric tale, Dolittle is portrayed as a “reluctant, but sincere vegetarian”. Surrounded by members of various animal species, Dolittle sings about his efforts to avoid eating meat, stating that his abstinence is because “On principle one should avoid eating one’s friends”, and, we might add, one’s patients! To covet or consume meat is – in his opinion – hypocritical precisely because he is a veterinarian.

Whether veterinarians should be vegan, and why more veterinarians aren’t vegan, are questions being asked more frequently in recent times. In May 2020, PETA published ‘An Open Letter to Veterinarians: Why Aren’t You Vegan?’. In the letter, veterinarians are reminded of their professional oath to protect all animals, and to prevent and relieve their suffering. Countries have slightly different versions of the veterinary oath but while they tend to include a commitment to helping nonhuman animals, these oaths also reveal the anthropocentric aims of the veterinary profession by having veterinary practitioners promise to work to benefit human health, society, and community. Owing to the cultural normativity of humans’ consumption of other animals (in all its forms) and the ubiquity of animal consumption in western culture (see Potts, 2016), it is likely that most veterinarians in western countries are raised to see other animals as inherently consumable, and the western veterinary profession, an institution that provides the training for future veterinarians, reinforces this view. Still, some people observe a paradox and clearly remain curious: Why Aren’t More Veterinarians Vegan?

Indeed, the motion ‘Veterinarians Should be Vegan’ was the topic of an IVSA Standing Committee on Animal Welfare (SCAW) debate held on January 23rd, 2021, in honour of Veganuary. The debate, conducted via video link, involved six veterinary students (three on each team) from various countries: India, Hungry, Indonesia and Poland. The opposition argued that it is impractical for veterinarians to be vegan for several reasons. They claimed that being vegan is expensive. They argued that veganism threatens job security (both veterinarians and farmers) and that veterinarians being vegan is bad for business because farmers are suspicious of vegans. They argued that medicine and science need to use animals to produce pharmaceuticals and other products to treat, cure and prevent disease and that veterinary schools need to use animals for experimental purposes to teach veterinary students essential skills. They proposed that if veterinarians stopped helping to maintain animals’ welfare, the suffering of farmed animals would be far worse. They raised the issue of poor mental health amongst veterinarians and proposed that being vegan would worsen this problem as veterinarians would face more complex ethical dilemmas. Finally, they expressed concern that if veterinarians became vegan, they might feed and promote plant-based diets for animals kept as companions. 

The proposition team argued that eating only plant-based food can be inexpensive and that even if it were more expensive than a diet containing animal products, a veterinarian’s income could easily accommodate such cost. Additionally, they believed a plant-based diet had health advantages, which was beneficial considering the physical nature of conducting veterinary work. In contrast to the opposition, they saw veganism as a way to improve mental health in the veterinary profession by enabling veterinarians to practice with a clean conscience and they emphasised the personal, social and environmental benefits of veganism. They argued veganism has public health advantages through reducing the risk of zoonotic disease (i.e., Covid-19). They emphasised there are alternatives to animal testing and other forms of animal use in veterinary training. Since veterinarians in training are often mandatorily required to witness first-hand animal agricultural practices, the proposition team argued that they have specialist knowledge and thus an imperative to protect these animals from the cruelty of animal agriculture rather than assist in making them more productive for humans to consume. They reminded the opposition team, the debate adjudicators, and the audience of the oath veterinarians take promising to relieve suffering and they asserted that veganism does not threaten the veterinary profession, but rather could gradually positively transform it.

Based on the judgement of audience members and adjudicators, the proposition team were declared the winners of the debate. While it is not my aim to critique the arguments made by either the opposition or proposition teams, it is encouraging to see this topic being debated, with some nuance, and involving individuals from across the world who represent the future of the veterinary profession. It is not known how many vegans there are globally nor within the veterinary profession, but estimates suggest approximately 1.16% of the population in Great Britain were vegan in 2019, which had increased fourfold since 2014 (Statista, 2020). If this trajectory continues in the general population, one might expect it to rise within the veterinary profession also, especially since the profession is one that appeals to those who care about and want to care for animals and owing to the increasing feminization of the profession and greater percentage of women vegan practitioners.

Debates on this topic should continue as questions will continue to be asked about whether the veterinary profession and those working within it can reconcile viewing and treating animals as units of production and simultaneously as sentient beings offered protection. Questions will continue as to whether the instrumental and exploitative mechanisms of capitalism can be reconciled with an ethic of compassion. Questions will be asked about what we, as a society, and as individuals, ultimately value more: economy or empathy.

Donelle Gadenne

CfHAS PhD Candidate