Letter to the Editor

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Commentary on animal rights stirs more debate

As a laboratory animal veterinarian, I became involved in the discussions surrounding animal rights in the early 80s and have made an attempt to remain current on the issue. I enjoyed reading Dr. Baggot's commentary, “Veterinarians as advocates for animal rights.”1 She did an excellent job of explaining the positions of Peter Singer and Tom Regan and defining a key term in the animal rights debate, “interests.” In her concluding paragraph, she stated, “… we can find common ground if we state our terms clearly and are willing to engage in conversation.” I would suggest that we can find a common ground only if we define our terms clearly and are willing to engage in conversation. Animal rights has different meanings for different people, and until we define the terms, any conversation on the subject will be an ever beginning, never ending circular debate. To that end, I believe that there are several terms besides interests that need to be defined. The first is “a right”—a right is a claim on another individual's obligation. The second is “standing”— standing is one's relative position in moral or legal relations. In its strongest sense, moral standing confers rights. In a weaker sense, it conveys a rank of moral importance. Two other terms should also be added to the list, “moral agent” and “moral subject.” A moral agent is someone who can be held responsible for their actions and held accountable for their misdeeds. By definition, an animal can not be a moral agent. A moral subject is someone to whom we, as moral agents, have direct or indirect duties. I believe that animals are moral subjects and do have moral standing but not moral rights. That standing should obligate us to respect and consider their interests.

As veterinarians, we must understand the terminology used before we attempt to find a common ground with animal rights activists. Part of that understanding is recognizing that animal rights is not animal welfare, as we understand it. Animal welfare is about treating animals humanely and not subjecting them to unnecessary suffering. The animal welfare position assumes that we can legitimately treat animals as a means to human ends. The animal rights position seeks to end the institutionalization of animal exploitation. It is based on the belief that some nonhumans possess rights similar to some humans. It seeks to ensure that relevant animal interests are protected and precludes the use of animals as a means to human ends. We should understand that by definition, animals have neither legal nor moral rights because they cannot make a claim or be held responsible for their actions. They do have interests, and those interests convey to them moral standing. It is for those interests and that standing that we as individuals and as a profession should concentrate our advocacy. By doing so, we can take the lead in addressing the concerns the majority of the American public has when it comes to doing the right thing for animals.

B. Taylor Bennett, DVM, PhD, DACLAM

Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Resources

University of Illinois

Chicago, Ill


Baggot SM. Veterinarians as advocates for animal rights. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2006;229:350352.

The author responds:

I appreciate Dr. Bennett's thoughtful response. I agree that veterinarians need to be leaders in making a strong commitment to advocating for animals' interests. I beg to differ, however, in his conclusion that animals do not have moral rights. As proposed in my commentary, animal welfare standards and laws are based on certain moral rights. Unfortunately, animals only have enforceable rights if they are granted them by humans. As philosopher Stephen Webb states, “Animals do not have a sense of their own moral claims on each other or on us. Even if the rights of animals are inscribed by law and enforced by the state, animals will still be dependent on us to voluntarily limit and alter our power over them and go out of our way to protect and nurture them.”1

In traditional philosophy, inherent value has only been applied to moral agents (ie, rational human beings participating in moral decision making and reciprocal morality) and not to moral patients. Regan's argument was revolutionary in that he pushed the discussion of inherent value and moral rights to include not only moral agents but also moral patients.2

Regan uses the term “inherent value” to make the case for animal rights. He proposes that the possession of the capacity for rationalism or morality should not be the criterion for determining inherent value and thus rights. Inherent value is derived, he states, from being a subject-of-a-life, and he lists nine qualities possessed by such individuals: beliefs and desires; perception; memory; a sense of one's own future; an emotional life; the ability to experience pain and pleasure; preference and welfare interests; the ability to initiate action in pursuit of desires and goals; and a psychosocial identity over time.3 Regan applies these characteristics to animals and argues that these capacities indicate that animals are subjects-of-a-life. As subjects-of-a-life, they have inherent value. As possessors of such, animals are beings with moral status.

Furthermore, Regan argues that the restriction of inherent value to moral agents alone is arbitrary. All beings fulfilling subject-of-a-life criteria possess inherent value equally. Put another way, moral agents do not possess more inherent value than moral patients, or subjects, do: “All who have inherent value have it equally, whether they be moral agents or moral patients.”3 Inherent value is an all or none quality.

It is unethical and unjust to suggest that rights be granted only to those who are moral agents. If that were so, then many moral patients such as infants, humans in irreversible comas, and those unable to make rational decisions, as well as nonhuman animals, would be excluded from rights coverage.

As veterinarians who do indeed care for and about animals, we may already incorporate the promotion of advocacy for our patients into our daily work routines. I suggest that we take the next step and recognize the moral presence of our patients and our practices.

Siobhán M. Baggot, DVM, MAIS

Eugene, Ore

  • 1.

    Webb SH. On God and dogs: a Christian theology of compassion for animals. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998;42.

  • 2.

    Baggot SM. The ethics of caring for dogs. MAIS thesis, Philosophy Department, College of Liberal Arts, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Ore, 2004.

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  • 3.

    Regan T. The case for animal rights. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1983;240, 243.

I wish to express my opinion on the commentary titled “Veterinarians as advocates for animal rights”1 by Dr. Siobhán Baggot. Although I think I can appreciate the intention of the article, I simply get concerned when anyone goes down the path of attributing “rights” to animals. From my perspective, it starts to get real fuzzy when we confer moral equivalencies to creatures that we can't even clearly communicate with for the most part. It seems to me that many simply are not willing to accept that we humans are a totally unique, created class among the animal kingdom. The simple fact that our species alone, as far as I can tell, can rationally debate this issue confirms to me that “rights” should be conferred only to species that can comprehend the concept.

Obviously, I'm in the camp that believes that we, as humans, have the responsibility to steward the animals under our care, not afford them rights. The issue as to whether animals have “rights” makes for a wonderful philosophic debate among us humans, but I doubt very seriously this possibility has ever crossed the minds of any of my pets or patients.

My experience seems to reinforce that if you provide adequate food, water, and species-specific shelter or environment, they seem to be perfectly content. Maybe that's why we as humans have this debate: it's a boredom response to having our basic needs met and exceeded! Anyhow, I realize my thinking processes may be far too simplistic to fully comprehend this topic, as I guess I'm a species bigot. I've been around too many common sense, practical farmers who took good care of their animals without thinking twice that they might need “rights” as well.

Timothy S. Cummings, MS, DVM, DACPV

College of Veterinary Medicine

Mississippi State University

Mississippi State, Miss


Baggot SM. Veterinarians as advocates for animal rights. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2006;229:350352.

Warning about postgrooming furunculosis

Postgrooming furunculosis is a distinctive, acute, and fulminant subgroup of deep pyoderma precipitated by bathing or grooming.1 To our knowledge, all occurrences apparently have involved the use of contaminated shampoo or cream rinse. These cases have occurred across North America. Recently, we had personal communication from a veterinarian in England who described the death of a young Border Terrier after it had been hand stripped and shampooed. That dog developed a deep skin infection and died, presumably because of sepsis. This death, plus potential lack of awareness of this newly described syndrome, has prompted this letter.

Postgrooming furunculosis affects dogs with thick hair shafts, such as dogs with wired haircoats or large-breed dogs. We suspect that minor trauma to hair follicles from manipulation of the hair shafts during the shampooing process is more likely to occur when the hair shaft is thick and firm. We hypothesize that when follicular trauma occurs in the setting of application of contaminated shampoo or cream rinse, infection follows. Pin brushing or other vigorous grooming activity may increase damage and the likelihood of infection. In hand stripping (as is performed in wire-haired terrier breeds), injury to the hairs and hair follicles likely is much greater than in routine grooming; thus, the infection may be potentially deeper and more dangerous. We have not seen this syndrome in dogs with very fine or short haircoats (eg, Poodles or Maltese).

Postgrooming furunculosis is visually distinctive. Typically, lesions develop in an irregular dorsal stripe within 24 to 72 hours after bathing. This pattern of dorsal striping is likely due to the method of shampoo application (down the dorsum) and further supports contaminated product in the etiopathogenesis. Intense erythema and edema rapidly eventuate in pustules, hemorrhagic bullae, and fistulation. Affected dogs are febrile, and the area of the lesions appears painful. They may be systemically ill, especially if administration of antimicrobials is delayed.

The syndrome has occurred especially following bathing in self-serve dog-washing facilities and grooming parlors but also has occurred following bathing at home or in veterinary practices. It is common practice in many dog-washing facilities to predilute shampoos or use and reuse communal shampoo containers without interim cleaning or sterilization. To date, Pseudomonas aeruginosa has been grown most often in pure or mixed culture from affected dogs and concurrently from shampoo or cream rinse. Serratia marcescens was isolated from one dog. It is not known how often veterinary shampoos may be contaminated before distribution and sale. In one instance, P aeruginosa was grown from an unopened plastic shampoo bottle.

Our current recommendations include diluting shampoo or cream rinse on the day it is used, sterilizing all community containers (including pump nozzles) on a daily basis, encouraging sterilization of grooming tools (especially stripping combs), and postponing bathing for at least two weeks after hand stripping. All dogs receiving grooming and bathing should be monitored for the development of dorsal inflammation for several days following the procedure.

Peter J. Ihrke, VMD, DACVD

Thelma Lee Gross, DVM, DACVP

School of Veterinary Medicine

University of California

Davis, Calif


Gross TL, Ihrke PJ, Walder EJ, et al. Skin diseases of the dog and cat: clinical and histopathologic diagnosis. Ames, Iowa: Blackwell Scientific, 2005;427429.

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