Vet Blogger Takes Issue With VMA Stance on Veal Calves

When it comes to animal welfare, veterinary medicine is a house divided. One camp consists of vets who feel that the profession should take a...

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Jul 30th 2010


When it comes to animal welfare, veterinary medicine is a house divided. One camp consists of vets who feel that the profession should take a leading role in improving animal welfare. The other camp is made up of vets who advocate for the status quo.

The first camp has a lot of younger vets, small animal vets, big city vets, and blue state vets in it. The second camp, with plenty of exceptions, consists largely of older, rural, large animal vets. (I live in San Francisco and I practice on dogs and cats; can you guess which camp I’m in?)

For years the two groups have engaged in a mild and generally polite struggle to sway the policies of veterinary groups such as the American Veterinary Medical Association and the California Veterinary Medical Association to their way of thinking. The status quo camp holds lots of sway, but it has been slowly losing ground.

Both the AVMA and the CVMA now hold relatively progressive positions on many issues related to small animals. And the CVMA famously and controversially endorsed California’s Proposition 2, a ballot initiative designed to improve farm animal welfare, in 2008.

However, on the matter of veal calf housing the status quo camp reigns supreme. Here is a quote from the July/August 2010 issue of California Veterinarian (the newsletter of the CVMA). The quote refers to actions taken by the CVMA Board of Governors.

[The Board of Governors approved] the Animal Welfare Committee’s recommendation that the CVMA adopt the AVMA policy on veal calf management: “Individual housing during the neonatal period facilitates sanitation, disease control, and individual attention for observation and treatment. Individual housing must allow the calf to turn around comfortably and to assume normal postures.”

One can indeed argue that keeping calves in isolation prevents the spread of disease. However, it neglects something important. Cows are a social species; keeping calves in isolation during their neonatal period may cause harm and suffering. It is not possible to measure the harm caused by isolating calves, but it seems reasonable to assume that harm occurs. Studies on humans (a similarly social species) have shown that isolating children to prevent disease transmission leads to grave developmental and psychological harm.

To me, it looks like the CVMA and the AVMA are abusing science in order to pander to the veal industry. It’s one thing to support the production of veal; it is another thing entirely to claim that veal production is beneficial for the calves involved.

In other news, on the same page the CVMA announced that it has adopted the AVMA’s policy on ear cropping and tail docking:

“The AVMA opposes ear cropping and tail docking of dogs when done solely for cosmetic purposes. The AVMA encourages the elimination of ear cropping and tail docking from breed standards.”