Veterinarians have a duty to promote positive animal welfare and alleviate animal suffering
Understanding the guiding principle
Veterinarians must be familiar with and comply with the Animal Welfare Act 1999 and the relevant Codes of Welfare. In the course of their work, veterinarians must consider and take all reasonable steps to protect the needs of animals in relation to the five basic requirements of:
- proper and sufficient food and water
- adequate shelter
- the opportunity to display normal patterns of behaviour
- appropriate physical handling
- protection from, and rapid diagnosis of, injury and disease.
This obligation is qualified however, as the needs in each individual case are assessed according to what is appropriate to the species, environment and circumstances of the affected animal(s).
Understanding section 1
In the course of their work veterinarians must not ignore circumstances where they have reasonable grounds to suspect non-compliance with the requirements of the Animal Welfare Act 1999 and Codes of Welfare. Veterinarians must be satisfied that their co-workers and their clients are informed of and comply with the relevant provisions of the Animal Welfare Act 1999 and Codes of Welfare that relate to work they are undertaking.
Understanding section 2
Veterinarians must act immediately to remedy situations where they have cause to suspect unreasonable or unnecessary pain or distress in an animal(s), or possible breaches of animal welfare legislation.
Understanding section 3
As well as any legal responsibility, veterinarians also have a professional obligation to take immediate action to remedy situations where they have reasonable cause to suspect violations of the Animal Welfare Act 1999. They are expected to exercise sound professional judgement when deciding how to act in these circumstances. In order to determine the best course of action, veterinarians need to gather as much relevant information regarding the circumstances, as they require to exercise their discretion and should carefully document their involvement showing clearly that they have taken all necessary steps to manage their legal and professional responsibilities.
The Flow Diagram of Actions following observation of Animal Welfare Case provides a suggested protocol to consider when presented with a welfare case.
Situations which must be reported to an inspector appointed under the Animal Welfare Act 1999 (SPCA inspector, MPI animal welfare inspector, Police, or the Animal Welfare Hotline 0800 008 333) include:
- Where animal welfare is reasonably considered to be at risk (ie a suspected offence under the Animal Welfare Act 1999) and a veterinarian suspects that the owner or person in charge of the animal is not acting reasonably to relieve the situation
- Situations of severe neglect or cruelty to animals, whether the owner person in charge is a client or not.
Privacy Principle 11(1)(e)(i) of the Privacy Act 2020 allows the disclosure of personal information where it is reasonably believed such disclosure is necessary to avoid prejudice to the maintenance of the law by any public sector agency, including the prevention, detection, investigation, prosecution, and punishment of offences. The decision to disclose client information and details when reporting suspected breaches of the Animal Welfare Act 1999 to the appropriate authorities can therefore be made when there are valid and justifiable reasons for doing so. If veterinarians are unsure whether to report, they are encouraged to discuss this with VCNZ, NZVA, MPI Animal Welfare or their lawyer.
When reporting a client to the authorities the veterinarian needs to act in good faith, having regard to all relevant information and preferably base their decision on personal knowledge and not unverified information. If unsure about their responsibility to report, veterinarians are encouraged to ring VCNZ, NZVA, MPI Animal Welfare or their own lawyer for advice.
Only the specific information necessary for the maintenance of the law should be disclosed, and only to inspectors appointed by the Minister under the Animal Welfare Act 1999. This includes but is not limited to police officers and inspectors employed by MPI and the SPCA.
In situations where veterinarians have reasonable cause to suspect violations of the Animal Welfare Act 1999 other than severe neglect or cruelty; and where the owner or person in charge of the animal(s) is a client and can be communicated with, the veterinarian should, discuss the situation with that person and develop an action plan to relieve the situation.
Where, for whatever reason the veterinarian decides they cannot discuss their concerns with the client the matter must be reported to an inspector appointed under the Animal Welfare Act 1999 (SPCA inspector, MPI animal welfare inspector, Police or the MPI Animal Welfare Hotline 0800 008 333).
Where an action plan has been developed to remedy a situation, the plan should identify criteria to measure improvement, with benchmarks which must be achieved within agreed timeframes. A system of monitoring agreed outcomes must be put in place. Depending on the circumstances an appropriate plan of action might include: improved nutrition in poor condition animals, specific treatment or possibly euthanasia.
Where improvements are seen the monitoring should be ongoing until the veterinarian is convinced a satisfactory outcome has been reached. If follow-up monitoring shows no improvement, or the plan hasn't been followed, or the situation is worse, the matter must be reported to an inspector appointed under the Animal Welfare Act 1999 (SPCA inspector, MPI animal welfare inspector, Police or the MPI Animal Welfare Hotline 0800 008 333).
Veterinarians should communicate their concerns to their manager or a senior veterinarian in the practice at the start of the process and at each step throughout.
Detailed records of each step of the process should be maintained by the veterinarian. A documented plan is crucial in the event that the care of the animal or the role of the veterinarian is called into question in the future. Photographs are a useful additional tool to record progress.
Where a new client presents an animal which has clearly been suffering unreasonable or unnecessary pain or distress for some time, the veterinarian must ascertain from the client whether or not the animal has previously been attended by a veterinarian, and if possible confer with that veterinarian. The owner's compliance with any previous veterinary treatment and recommendations should be taken into account in determining whether an action plan and monitoring, as discussed above, are applicable. The requirements described in section 5 of the Professional relationships section of this Code in relation to supersession are relevant in this context.
At times veterinarians may have reasonable cause to suspect breaches of the Animal Welfare Act 1999 outside the course of their work, eg when they are on holiday. In these situations, veterinarians are expected to use their judgement to determine whether they intervene directly or report the matter. Circumstances may make it unreasonable or inappropriate for the veterinarian to communicate directly with the person in charge of the animal(s). In such situations the matter must be reported by the veterinarian to an inspector appointed under the Animal Welfare Act 1999 (SPCA inspector, MPI animal welfare inspector, Police or the MPI Animal Welfare Hotline 0800 008 333).
Veterinarians in the course of their work must act lawfully at all times including the times when dealing with situations where they have reasonable cause to suspect animal welfare violations. Veterinarians must exercise sound professional judgement when making decisions relating to animals in these circumstances maintaining appropriate respect for an owner's property rights in relation to their animals. Veterinarians should avoid actions which could, for example, be interpreted as theft or even trespass. For example in situations of:
- a person bringing another person's dog to the clinic for treatment or euthanasia without the consent of the owner
- entering a property without the owner's permission even though the veterinarian suspects breaches of animal welfare standards.
If veterinarians are unsure how to respond in particular circumstances they are encouraged to discuss this with VCNZ, NZVA, MPI Animal Welfare or their lawyer.
VCNZ accepts research linking the association between deliberate physical maltreatment of animals and violence against humans. Veterinarians, when confronted with situations of animal abuse, should consider whether people within that home might be at risk. As well as responding appropriately to the ill treatment of the animal (paragraphs a-o above), veterinarians should use their judgement to determine whether the appropriate government authorities (Police, Child, Youth and Family) should be informed. If veterinarians are unsure whether to report, they are encouraged to discuss this with VCNZ, NZVA, MPI Animal Welfare or their lawyer.
Flow diagram for animal welfare issues
When euthanasia is necessary it must be carried out humanely. In situations where an animal's owner is not known or cannot be contacted, veterinarians must exercise their duty under section 138 of the Animal Welfare Act 1999 to euthanise severely sick or injured animals responsibly.
Understanding section 4
Veterinarians have a professional and legal duty to take steps to relieve unreasonable or unnecessary pain or distress in animals under their care. This includes the need to administer first aid and adequate pain relief (and even euthanasia) whether or not payment can be made at the time of the treatment. They are expected to exercise sound professional judgement when making decisions on treatment, recognising the need in some cases to balance what treatment might be necessary or appropriate against commercial considerations and the wishes of the owner. The over-riding priority is to ensure that animal welfare is not compromised. There is further discussion on this topic as it relates to providing emergency services to clients who have economic restraints in the Veterinary services chapter, explanatory notes to section 7.
Veterinarians are encouraged to develop and foster relationships with local SPCA branches. Such relationships can include standard protocols for how the practice and the SPCA might share responsibility for the emergency care of animals where the owner cannot be identified.
Section 138 of the Animal Welfare Act 1999 identifies the powers of veterinarians relating to the destruction of severely injured or sick animals (excluding marine mammals). This section deals both with situations when an owner of the animal is known and also when the owner cannot be found within a reasonable time.
Veterinarians are advised to read section 138 of the Animal Welfare Act 1999 very carefully and must be familiar with these legal requirements, their authority under this section and also the limitations on their authority.
Veterinarians must act with extreme caution, exercising sound professional judgement when using these powers in order to avoid possible legal liability associated with an inappropriate decision to destroy the animal.
Section 138 requires that, where a veterinarian (or Inspector or auxiliary officer appointed under the Animal Welfare Act 1999) finds a severely sick or injured animal and ‘reasonable treatment will not be sufficient to make the animal respond and the animal will suffer unreasonable or unnecessary pain or distress’, he or she must destroy the animal if the owner cannot be found within a reasonable time. Alternatively, if the owner is available but does not agree with the decision to euthanise the animal this section provides for a second opinion to be sought.
The critical factor is that the veterinarian must ‘find’ the animal. Interpretation of ‘find’ is broad and includes the situation where a veterinarian is presented with such an animal by an owner or by a member of the public. The significance of the word ‘find’ is that the veterinarian does need to physically come across the animal, as distinct from simply gaining knowledge of the animal. This suggests that the veterinarian is required to carry out a physical examination of the animal before reaching a conclusion. It follows that where a veterinarian learns of a severely sick or injured animal but has not seen it, the destruction of the animal cannot be authorised by the veterinarian. The veterinarian has a professional duty to examine the animal and take all reasonable steps to locate the owner before considering the option of euthanasia.
While the legislation does not constrain the veterinarian to act only under the authority of an appointed inspector in making the decision to euthanise the animal, it is strongly recommended that they do so wherever possible. While the veterinarian is most likely to understand the medical basis for the decision to euthanise, the appointed inspector may be able to advise on the soundness of the decision taking into account the legal complexities. In an emergency, if a warranted inspector is not readily available, veterinarians are advised to consult with a member of the police, as police officers are deemed to be inspectors under the Animal Welfare Act 1999.
Where veterinarians act independently in reliance on s138, they must be very sure that they follow all the obligatory procedural steps to minimise the risk of associated legal liability and should document the same.
If veterinarians are unsure about making a decision to euthanise an animal under section 138 they are encouraged to discuss this with VCNZ, NZVA, MPI Animal Welfare or their lawyer before they act.
Section 140 of the Animal Welfare Act 1999 identifies the obligations applying to veterinarians when presented with a severely sick or injured marine mammal.
The American Veterinary Medical Association Guidelines on Euthanasia define euthanasia as the act of inducing humane death in an animal. In order to be humane, euthanasia techniques should result in rapid loss of consciousness followed by cardiac or respiratory arrest and the ultimate loss of brain function. In addition, techniques should minimise distress and anxiety experienced by the animal prior to loss of consciousness.
Selection of the most appropriate method of euthanasia in any given situation depends on the species of animal involved, available means of animal restraint, skill of personnel, number of animals, and other considerations. Veterinarians are expected to exercise sound professional judgment and use their knowledge of clinically acceptable and science-based techniques in selecting an appropriate euthanasia technique taking into account the above factors. The AMVA guidelines provide useful advice on euthanasia.
Veterinarians must ensure that in the course of their work, only persons appropriately approved under sections 15–20 of the Animal Welfare Act 1999 perform significant, restricted or controlled surgical procedures. Veterinarians must be satisfied that any person under their authority who performs any type of surgical procedure on an animal is appropriately trained and supervised, and that the animal does not suffer unreasonable or unnecessary pain or distress.
Understanding section 5
Type of surgical procedure
Description of surgical procedure
Prohibited surgical procedures (section 21(2))
It is an offence for any person to perform these procedures e.g. cropping the ears of a dog.
These procedures may generally be performed only by a vet. In cases of uncertainty the Minister can recommend an order in council to clarify whether a procedure is significant.
Restricted surgical procedures (section 17)
These procedures may only be carried out by a vet, who must satisfy himself or herself that the procedure is in the interests of the animal e.g. debarking a dog.
Controlled surgical procedures (section 18)
These procedures may be carried out by a vet or person with veterinary approval only e.g. develvetting
Non significant surgical procedures
These procedures (not specifically mentioned in the Act) can be carried out by any person e.g. the clipping of a dog’s nails.
Under Section 6 of the Animal Welfare Act 1999 significant surgical procedures include but are not limited to restricted surgical procedures, controlled surgical procedures and any other surgical procedure declared by Order in Council to be significant for the purposes of the Act.
Debarking of dogs, declawing of cats and the docking of the tail of a horse are all classified as restricted surgical procedures. Only veterinarians or veterinary undergraduate students working under the direct and constant supervision of a veterinarian are allowed to perform restricted surgical procedures.
Before a restricted surgical procedure may be performed veterinarians must satisfy themselves that it is in the interests of the animal. The ‘interests of the animal’ is paramount, not the interests of the animal's owner. For example, the docking of the tail of a horse where there is infection or a cancerous growth can reasonably be thought to be in the interests of the animal. Whereas the docking of the tail of a Shire horse for horse show purposes or for cosmetic reasons is clearly not in the interests of the animal.
Develvetting of deer is a controlled surgical procedure. Only veterinarians, undergraduate veterinary students acting under the supervision of a veterinarian, the owner of an animal who is acting under veterinary approval, and the employee of the owner of an animal acting under veterinary approval may perform controlled surgical procedures. Veterinary approval in the context of the performance of controlled surgical procedures is defined in the Animal Welfare Act 1999 and veterinarians are referred to the Act for the detailed requirements.
When approving laypersons to carry out velvet removal and authorising the purchase and use of restricted veterinary medicines veterinarians are strongly advised to comply with the MPI ACVM Guidance Document: Veterinary Operating Instructions Appendix: Xylazine, Yohimbine and Lignocaine for Velvet Antler Removal. Veterinarians who comply with this standard can be assured that they will meet their legal and professional responsibilities under the Animal Welfare Act 1999, the Agricultural Compounds and Veterinary Medicines Act 1997 and the VCNZ Code of Professional Conduct.
Under the Animal Welfare Act 1999 significant surgical procedures (that are not listed as controlled surgical procedures) must only be carried out by a veterinarian or an undergraduate veterinary student under the direct and constant supervision of a veterinarian.
Any person may perform a surgical procedure on an animal that is not a significant surgical procedure but must do so in a manner that does not result in unreasonable or unnecessary pain or distress.
Where a matter is brought to the attention of VCNZ about a person not authorised under the Animal Welfare Act 1999 performing a surgical procedure which might reasonably be considered to be significant the matter in the first instance will be referred to MPI for investigation of a possible breach of the provisions of the Animal Welfare Act 1999. In circumstances where the surgical procedure has been performed under the authority of a veterinarian VCNZ will consider a number of factors. These could include whether the veterinarian has acted appropriately taking into account the outcome of the MPI investigation and the circumstances under which the procedure was performed including: the degree of supervision of the person, the level of training of the person and whether the animal has suffered unnecessary or unreasonable pain or distress.
Where a matter is brought to the attention of VCNZ about a non-veterinarian, acting under the authority of a veterinarian, performing a surgical procedure not reasonably considered to be significant, the matter will be considered in the context of whether the veterinarian has acted appropriately in delegating the procedure. Consideration would likely include the circumstances under which the procedure was performed including: the degree of supervision of the person, the training of the person and whether the animal has suffered unreasonable or unnecessary pain or distress.
In considering whether a procedure can be delegated to a non-veterinarian the following criteria should be applied.
- There must be no increased risk of pain or distress to the animal or breach of animal welfare legislation or codes
- Standards and public confidence in safeguards relating to animal health and welfare, public health, and fitness for purpose of animal products must not be jeopardised
- Legal requirements and professional obligations involved in certification must not be breached
- Agricultural compounds and veterinary medicines legislation or codes of practice must not be breached
- The training required to satisfy the above must be specified, courses of instruction should be available and should have been satisfactorily completed by persons carrying out each procedure
- The veterinary control required should be specified and be appropriate for each procedure, taking account of the qualifications and competence of the person permitted to carry it out
- Adequate arrangements to secure and enforce the above must be established
- The consent of the owner knowing that the procedure will be carried out by a person who is not a veterinarian.
Significant surgical procedures are defined by the Governor General, by Order in Council, acting on the advice of the Minister tendered after consultation with the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee. Alternatively, recognition of a significant surgical procedure may follow a successful court prosecution under the Animal Welfare Act 1999. VCNZ if asked to provide advice on what might reasonably be considered to be a significant surgical procedure will base its advice on a modified version of guidelines prepared by NZVA. The modified guidelines involve a 3 step process. Where the answer to the first two questions is yes and the answer to the third question is no, VCNZ will advise that the procedure can reasonably be considered to be a significant surgical procedure. More definitive advice would need to be sought from MPI.
Step 1 Does the procedure lead to significant pain and also involve:
- entry into a body cavity; or
- invasion of the periosteum; or
- surgical removal of significant viable tissue.
Step 2 Does the procedure require:
- a detailed knowledge of anatomy and physiology; and
- a knowledge of the medical and surgical management of complications during and post surgery including: herniation, infection, haemorrhage, adhesions, shock, homeostasis, allergic reactions, pain; and
- an understanding of pharmacology including; pharmacokinetics, and dynamics, anaesthesia and analgesia, allergic response; and
- an understanding of pathophysiology; and
- an understanding of asepsis and antisepsis.
Step 3 Is the procedure normally or commonly performed by non-veterinarians in New Zealand?
Veterinarians must not carry out treatments or procedures on animals unless they meet the following criteria. Treatments or procedures must:
- only be performed:
- when the procedure is reasonable and appropriate in the circumstances in order to prevent, diagnose or treat an illness or injury; or
- in accordance with accepted farming practices (eg develvetting deer); or
- in accordance with generally accepted principles of responsible pet ownership (eg de-sexing cats and dogs)
- only be performed with appropriate pain management
- not be performed primarily for the convenience of the owner
- meet accepted professional standards.
Understanding section 6
Where a client's animals are found to carry inherited defects that compromise their welfare or that of their prospective progeny, veterinarians must give the client sound genetic counselling and management advice which is in the best interests of the animal and its progeny.
Understanding section 7
Veterinarians are trained to diagnose health conditions in animals which have a genetic basis. Breeding programmes that select or allow for genetic defects in the offspring compromise those animals' welfare. Veterinarians are expected to provide sound advice to clients planning to breed animals about how to develop reproductive programmes that will reduce the incidence of hereditary diseases.
Veterinarians are encouraged to seek advice from the appropriate NZVA Special Interest Branch (SIB) for specific information on relevant inherited disorders.