The vet in the lab: exploring the position of animal professionals in non-therapeutic roles

Vanessa Ashall, Pru Hobson-West
Publication date

The role of the veterinary professional is complex but, until recently, has not been the subject of much academic research. Vets play an important role in a wide variety of social contexts, including in ‘nontherapeutic’ roles, for example in facilitating the use of animals in sport or for food production. This paper focuses on a further non-therapeutic example, namely the role of the vet in laboratory animal research. The research arena itself is characterised by ethical tensions and polarised opinion regarding the significance of, and justification for, using animals in harmful research for the primary benefit of humans. The aim of this paper is to explore some of the ethical questions raised by the position of the veterinary surgeon in the lab, focusing on the UK example. First, we outline the legislative responsibilities for the Named Veterinary Surgeon (NVS) under the Animals Scientific Procedures Act (ASPA) 1986, and compare this with the professional guidance for UK vets in all settings (RCVS Code of Conduct), making the argument that the NVS responsibilities to a scientific establishment under ASPA should be viewed as additional to the multiple responsibilities which are faced by all veterinary surgeons. A critical review of published and grey literature is then used to highlight how poorly the nature of this role is understood. In line with recent calls for improved sociological understanding of the veterinary profession, particularly in the case of potentially harmful veterinary interventions, we raise the need for careful empirical work which is focused on this complex professional role, and identify three preliminary research themes: The embodiment of professional expertise; the relocation of veterinary procedures; and reframing the veterinary ‘patient’. Finally, we conclude more broadly that the current articulation of a veterinarian’s role may not fit well with some aspects of the varied non-therapeutic work which is undertaken by the profession.