Through a Vet’s Eyes by Sean Wensley FRCVS – Blog tour

‘How We Can All Choose a Better Life for Animals’

Gosh! This book made me think!

It made me feel guilty: Firstly for enjoying eating meat. Although not written to discourage that, or promote vegetarianism at all, the author does strongly promote that we (those who can afford it) should eat better welfare meat – and I generally do these days. Secondly it made me feel guilty for owning two unrelated cats, one of which stressed the other so much he got bladder stones resulting in a big vet’s bill (luckily, most of it was covered on insurance) but he requires a special diet now to prevent recurrence, and running interference when I can see the other cat lying in wait, which thankfully does happen less now they’re older. I never knew that wasn’t recommended – but then previously I had litter siblings who got on – and was not advised against it when we went to the shelter to get kittens years ago.

It also got me into an argument: With a colleague who loves horse racing. I was particularly shocked by the chapter on horses, because we imagine that racehorses and those in equestrian events have perfect lives, but a huge percentage of them live with some degree of gastric ulcers, caused by the way we feed them not being matched to their digestive systems. Long periods of stabling, transporting, big meals of low roughage cereals, etc may keep their coats glossy and legs injury free, but without enough access to regular small amounts of grass (give them just hay and they may tend to binge-eat it apparently) their stomachs which produce a constant trickle of acid to deal with grazing pasture, will act on the empty stomachs instead as neutralising saliva is only produced while the horse is eating. This chapter has one of the longest set of references at the end – I may still copy them for my colleague. However, I won’t be betting on the Grand National again, nor enjoying watching dressage etc with any enthusiasm.

I have got ahead of myself, but you can see how reading this book has affected me. Now, let me tell you more about it…

About the author: Dr Sean Wensley is an award-winning UK veterinarian and recent President of the British Veterinary Association (BVA). He chairs the Animal Welfare Working Group of the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe (FVE), which represents veterinary organisations from 40 European countries.

So, who better to write a book about how we care for and treat the animals which we rear to eat, use for work and leisure, or for companionship at home. Wensley’s book has three interwoven threads: Firstly nature writing – his love of birdwatching in particular, also just being in nature and the richness of the Merseyside coastline near his home. Secondly his veterinary training – and more specifically all the placements he had at different types of farms and animal rearing businesses. Thirdly, a polemic about how we treat the animals with some shocking home truths. Most chapters contain a blend of the three forms and concentrate on one type of animal – so we learn about chickens, pigs, cows, sheep, horses, pets, plus a separate chapter on slaughter alongside the wild animals he encounters.

We begin though, after an introduction by Miranda Krestovnikoff (President of the RSPB and familiar to many from Coast etc on TV), with Wensley’s own introduction on being a vet:

On learning that I am a vet, people often graciously comment how challenging my work must be ‘with so many different types of animals to learn and know about.’ I try to reply with humility, but really I, and my colleagues, bask in false glory if people do not realize just how similar – anatomically and functionally – one mammal is from the next. Of course there are species differences in, for example, parasite and pathogen susceptibility, pharmacological considerations and nutritional requirements, but there is also much overlap. Vets, doctors and dentists all essentially practise ‘mammal medicine’, with vets throwing in – to a greater or lesser extent – reptiles, birds, amphibians and invertebrates for good measure.

He goes on to discuss animal consciousness and sentience and our current UK legal framework for animal welfare which developed the Animal Welfare Committee’s ‘Five Freedoms’ into in the Five Welfare Needs enshrined in our legislation:

The Five Freedoms

  1. freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. freedom from discomfort
  3. freedom from pain, injury or disease
  4. freedom to express normal behaviour
  5. freedom from fear and distress

The Five Welfare Needs – subtly different

  1. the need for a suitable environment
  2. the need for a suitable diet
  3. the need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
  4. the need to be housed with, or apart from, other animals
  5. the need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.

Before embarking on the chapter by chapter survey, Wensley describes the research project he undertook as a veterinary student – looking at the behaviour of zebra finches (born into captivity) kept in typical petshop conditions. He had wondered ‘ Why is it acceptable to cage a budgie but not a blue tit.’ He realised that ‘domestic animals have rarely had their natural behaviour bred out of them.’ He quotes studies and reports of releases where inborn behaviours soon resurfaced, and where some inate behaviours are more important to the animal than others – his zebra finches relished being offered water baths. This project was a but a minor foray into studying animal welfare though compared to his placements.

Animal lovers will need a strong stomach to read most of the rest of this book. From battery hens and lame chickens to beak-clipping, from pig farrowing crates to tail docking, disbudding horns and castrating (sometimes without anaesthetic), and what happens when animals arrive at the abattoir. It’s not easy reading, and some of the farmers he worked with on placements had their justifications for continuing to carry out some of these processes which shouldn’t be routine any more.

The final chapter sets us all challenges to relish nature and to act in many different ways to do our bit for climate change and biodiversity. We are urged to consider animal welfare when we purchase our food by eating ‘less and better meat and dairy’ and thus signal to producers. To do our research before buying pets, not let them get fat and train them well. There is much for us all to do. The book concludes with a full fifty pages of references and a chart comparing the different welfare schemes for meat in the UK so we know what to look for.

The more books I read about how our food is produced, the more fascinated I am by the subject which increases in importance every day. I am also forced to examine my own habits, and I am making small steps. Luckily eating ‘less and better meat and dairy’ is something I can do, while not giving it up eating meat completely.

This book is important: provocative and eye-opening, written to engage the reader on many levels. Wensley is such a strong advocate for improving animal welfare, and states his case with passion. I thoroughly recommend reading it.

Source: Review copy – Thank you. Gaia/Octopus hardback, 347 pages (incl notes). BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

9 thoughts on “Through a Vet’s Eyes by Sean Wensley FRCVS – Blog tour

  1. madamebibilophile says:

    This sounds excellent Annabel. I previously rescued two cats who weren’t related, and they were toms. I was surprised they got on but was assured they did. Let’s just say I disagreed! But they found a way to live together and we found ways to support them both. Now I’ve got brother and sister cats and the difference is remarkable. It’s nice to see them together. I’d like to see more regulation around pet ownership to ensure animals are appropriately supported. I’ll definitely read this but I imagine all in one go is quite tough – I’ll split it into smaller sections with something else between!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’m glad your cats get on. I love both of mine, but feel very guilty that one caused the other to be ill. I didn’t know of calico’s ‘naughty tortie’ reputation either – she is one extreme or the other. But they do tolerate each other most of the time. Back to the book – it was truly eye-opening – hard reading but very worthwhile indeed.

  2. mallikabooks15 says:

    This sounds really good, but I agree, will be difficult reading. I didn’t know about unrelated cats either. I had one pair of siblings that got along, while another just about tolerate each other. Nor about race horses–I’d have expected them to be quite the opposite. I did a course on coursera some years ago which covered animals for food, and how one can go about understanding and treating them better. That was quite an eyeopener. I’ll look this up sometime

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I think the chapter on horses shocked me the most – because I was totally unaware of the problems, unlike animals we raise for food where I already knew about the poor welfare conditions some are subjected to.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      This mostly isn’t a book for vegans, unless you want to press it into meat-eating friends’ hands! But it does cover more than animals raised for food – how we keep our pets,. plus that chapter on horses spending too much time stabled etc.

  3. A Life in Books says:

    This sounds such an important book. I’m lucky enough to be able to afford high-welfare meat and only eat it around once a week but I know not everyone can do that. As for the horse section, it sounds horrendous.

  4. Calmgrove says:

    Yes to all you describe, and especially the “less and better” mantra which we try to follow, like only sourcing meat from a local butcher who’s au fait with the conditions the animals are reared under – and of course reducing the miles travelled to obtain the meat. Oddly, despite living amongst fields full of Welsh sheep we rarely if ever eat lamb.

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