Vet ethics: Pointing the finger at pandemic-causing behaviour

A recent article in Neuroepidemiology, called “What the COVID-19 crisis is telling humanity,” argues that the way we treat animals puts us at risk of further disasters similar to the current pandemic. The authors, David Wiebers and Valery Feigin, are neuroscientists. Their call for a change in our treatment of animals affects everyone. But their argument also has specific implications for veterinarians.

Wiebers and Feigin note that SARS-Cov-2 originated from a non-animal host, probably a bat, and then spread to humans via an intermediary animal, perhaps a pangolin or some other species. They also make the familar point that most human infectious diseases, especially emerging ones, have sources in nonhuman animals.

COVID-19 has obviously wreaked global havoc in numerous ways. As neuropsychiatrists, the authors are keen to stress that COVID-19 seems to have important neurological consequences for many victims. These signs and symptoms include “headache, anosmia, ageusia, ataxia, paresthesia, ischemic stroke, seizures, and various encephalopathies.” Previous viral pandemics have had various further sequelae. For example, the 1918 Spanish flu was associated with Parkinson’s disease.

Wiebers and Feigin argue that it is we humans, not bats or other animals, that are ultimately responsible for pandemics like present one. One reason is that we have destroyed the ecosystems and environments of many animals. Wet markets also increase risks of zoonotic transmission. Another reason is that humans hunt and trade in wildlife. The HIV pandemic, the authors note, arose because chimpanzees were hunted.

Wiebers and Feigin also highlight industrial animal farming. As opposed to some of the other risky practices which are often present in lower income nations, factory farming is a risk factor for human pandemics that has its origins in wealthier countries. An example of a pandemic associated with industrial animal farms is the 2009 H1N1 outbreak which came from pigs.

Large-scale animal farms, the authors also argue, are partly to blame for emerging antimicrobial resistance. The creation of new animal farms also causes deforestation which further increases pandemic risk. Provocatively, the authors write:

“Intensive confinement of animals in factory farm operations should be discontinued worldwide for the sake of animals, humans, and the environment, and we should rapidly evolve to eating other forms of protein that are safer for humans, including plant-based meat alternatives and cultured meat (produced by culturing animal cells)…Ultimately, the survival, not only of other life forms on this planet, but also of our own, will depend upon humanity’s ability to recognize the oneness of all that exists and the importance and deeper significance of compassion for all life.”

The article by Wiebers and Feigin received a number of replies in the journal Animal Sentience. One reply is from veterinarian and wildlife epidemiologist Lee Skerratt. Skerratt points to the importance of the growing discipline of Wildlife Health. Wildlife health systems can help to prevent disease outbreaks by surveilling the health of wild animals and their pathogens.

Yet the COVID-19 pandemic, says Skerratt, has demonstrated the insufficient development of wildlife health systems. Much expertise for these preventative activities already exists in veterinary and human health domains. With better support, he claims, these experts could help to reduce the risk of diseases that are disastrous for both humans and animals. In Skerratt’s view, an attitude change towards respecting the health of wild animals will also be required.

Another reply comes from veterinarian and ethicist Anne Fawcett. Fawcett connects Wiebers and Feigin’s argument with the role and beliefs of veterinarians. In particular, she argues that their general argument is consistent with the emerging concept of One Welfare.

One Welfare is the idea that human, animal, and environmental wellbeing are interconnected. As Fawcett explains:

“One Welfare situates humans within rather than apart from nature. It recognises that the risks of zoonotic disease transmission can be reduced by preserving habitats or caring for animals in an appropriate, sustainable environment, ensuring appropriate animal husbandry, health and welfare.”

Fawcett argues that health professionals, including veterinarians, have a role here that goes beyond treating individual patients. In fact, she thinks, medical and veterinary professionals have responsibilities to become advocates and even activists for One Welfare.

This means that they should advocate for changes in human behaviour to promote wellbeing for humans, animals, and the planet. The climate crisis is of even greater concern than pandemics, she says. This crisis, Fawcett writes, it also caused by our exploitative and dominating attitude towards the nonhuman world. Thus, all of us, including veterinarians, need to seriously rethink our relationship with all life on earth.


Do you have any topics you’d like Simon to consider? Email us at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.