Animal Welfare: Perspectives of Farmers & Veterinarians on Dairy Cattle Welfare

This post highlights some great work by Christine Sumner, a PhD candidate from University of British Columbia. This animal welfare group, led by Drs. Marina A.G. von Keyserlingk and Daniel M. Weary, is where a lot of animal welfare work is being done. As part of her dissertation, Sumner reviewed research to identify farmer and veterinarian perspectives about dairy cattle welfare. She identified those beliefs where dairy farmers and their veterinarians agreed and where they disagreed or varied on specific animal welfare concerns.

The basis of this paper is that veterinarians are trusted advisors and can play an important role in improving animal welfare on dairy farms. For more rapid animal welfare improvements, barriers to effective communication between the veterinarian and producer must be identified, and collaborative relationships strengthened.

While veterinarians are as different and varied as dairy producers, there are likely to be similarities in belief patterns about animal welfare. Sumner’s review helps identify those patterns. Not all findings relate to every dairy farm and its veterinary relationship.

Animal welfare is currently being intensively studied, from differing perspectives. The goal of that research is to improve the wellbeing of animals and to focus perspectives toward that common goal. Public concern along with increasing volume of research will continue to influence ways of doing business from an animal welfare perspective as it evolves. Understanding others’ perspectives and improving communications should help us all improve.

This paper is important for several reasons. It should stimulate thought and create discussions on ways advisors and farmer relationships may be improved towards advancing animal welfare. Significant advances require all parties, not just farmers, or just veterinarians, to look for ways to get better. Breakdowns in communication occur for many reasons and happen often. Reasons include:

  • strong differences in beliefs
  • perceived assumptions that are untrue
  • incomplete information leading to miscommunication
  • failure to listen to concerns
  • lack of knowledge or interest about a topic

This paper is a good starting point for on-farm discussions about common beliefs, complementary beliefs (you have different beliefs but they complement each other leading to a better solution), as well as areas of dissenting beliefs. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree on specific aspects of animal welfare, we can only move forward through good communication and discussions and by listening to and learning from alternative perspectives.

Summary of Research Findings

Sumner and her co-worker’s findings provide a good starting point:

1. Dairy farmers and their veterinarians share many concerns about animal disease and pain management.

  • However, there may be differences in belief about when in the progression of a disease some action or intervention should occur (e.g. surgery, medication, pain relief medication, etc.) so that outcomes are improved (e.g. lessened reduction of milk production, a faster cure, a lower treatment or labor cost, etc.).
  • There may be differences between the herd veterinarian and dairy producer’s perception of an animal’s pain tolerance at the time of a procedure (e.g. dehorning), and/or following that procedure (e.g. healing and repair of tissue after dehorning).
  • Differences in beliefs may create barriers to improving, or to speed of improving, animal welfare on-farm.

2. Misunderstandings between farmers and their veterinarians about the priority or order of welfare improvements, affects the timing and extent of on-farm enhancements.

3. Beliefs of both dairy farmers and veterinarians about the natural behavior of animals are not well understood. The natural living conditions of dairy animals are a major concern to the general public.

  • There is limited research on beliefs by dairy farmers and their veterinarians on the natural living adaptations of cattle under differing conditions, and more research is needed.
  • Examples of natural living adaptations include:
    • pasture compared with freestall
    • calf access to their dam for an extended time period after birth
    • air movement during hot environmental conditions

4. On-farm veterinarians are a trusted advisor to dairy farmers. As a result, better cooperation between farmer and veterinarian can likely improve animal welfare. Primary factors that influence cooperation were identified by authors of this study and may be a good starting point for improving communications between veterinarian and dairy farmer clients.

  • Identifying shared concerns about animal welfare
  • Reframing unique beliefs of each stakeholder so they are complementary
  • Improving communication about costs of individual components of animal welfare and farm goals with respect to animal welfare management


The Study


There is increasing public concern for welfare of farm animals. Concern by the dairy industry, including dairy product buyers and sellers, for animal care methods is also increasing. Concerns have led to on-farm animal care evaluations by milk cooperatives and plants and adoption of practices to improve animal welfare. Despite advances toward more uniform animal welfare practices, there are still differences in belief on animal welfare between farmers and their advisors, and with the general public's views on animal welfare.

Some studies suggest that the public believes farmers are too focused on production, which they believe is likely contrary to animal welfare. Surveys of farmers and veterinarians found that they often dismiss public concerns as being based on lack of knowledge about modern farming. Despite these perception differences, many dairy farmers value how their animals feel, and veterinarians are concerned about comfort of housing, young animal's care, and an animals ability to show natural behavior. A better understanding of beliefs starts with a clear definition of animal welfare.

Animal welfare experts have identified three overlapping areas of concern:

  1. An animal’s AFFECTIVE STATE: how they are feeling
  2. BIOLOGICAL FUNCTIONING: health status often measured through tests
  3. NATURAL LIVING: the extent to which an animal uses their behavioral adaptations

Most current research on animal welfare and perceptions of veterinarians and dairy producers about animal welfare, are focused on biological functioning aspects such as symptoms or prevention and treatment of disease, and some on the animal’s affective state or pain relief. As a result, the authors focus on those aspects of veterinarian and producer beliefs but then raise concerns about the need for us to better understand natural living aspects of animal welfare.

Shared Concerns of Dairy Producers and Veterinarians

A recent Canadian study found that disease management is a high priority of both producers and veterinarians. Within disease management, farmers placed highest priority on calf disease, milk production related disease, and biosecurity. Veterinarian priorities were similar and included production related diseases, treatment of disease, and biosecurity.

Photo: courtesy of Milk Specialties Global Animal Nutrition

Additional research suggested that dairy farmers and veterinarians generally agreed on what procedures, diseases, and injuries are painful to animals. Surveyed veterinarians and farmers in Ontario agreed that disbudding and dehorning of calves without analgesics is painful. Interestingly, studies that further evaluated pain beliefs were conflicting. One study found that veterinarians considered certain conditions to be more painful to dairy animals compared with their farmer clients. Another study found veterinarians believed surgical removal of calf horns was painful and nearly all provided pain relief during removal. However, only a few provided pain relief to lessen the animal’s pain following dehorning and during the healing process. Another study of 15 veterinarians found that the majority (93.3%) believed dehorning was painful for calves but none provided pain relief during the dehorning procedure. Some of these differences may be due to culture, educational exposure, consumer and/or dairy product buyer pressure on veterinarians, or other factors.

Complimentary Concerns of Dairy Producers and Veterinarians

Although dairy farmers and veterinarians share concerns on animal welfare, they also have unique perspectives on disease and intervention methods. Complementary concerns are ones where the veterinarian and dairy producer may disagree on the method but when they work together, the outcome toward better animal welfare improves. Research suggests one area of complementary belief is the point in progression of a disease where intervention or treatment is needed. The specific time in the progression of mastitis at which a cow should be treated with antibiotics is an example of a possible complementary belief between veterinarian and their clients. Research suggests that veterinarians may believe antibiotics should be given after the pathogen is identified while the farmer may believe antibiotics should be given immediately. Discussions about why these differences in beliefs exist, would be very worthwhile on-farm.

Another example from available research, involves time at which pain relief medication is given for dehorning. For example, the dairy farmer or veterinarian may believe dehorning is painful but disagree on when pain relief should be provided, the least painful method of dehorning, or time at which pain relief is most beneficial. The choice to use disbudding or dehorning procedures may be based on perceived effectiveness of removing horns rather than on providing the best relief from pain. Discussions on these issues and beliefs about these issues should lead to improved processes.

Other researchers have found that desensitization by the veterinarian or the farmer to an animals' response to a painful procedure may contribute to beliefs about pain mitigation. Results of studies were again conflicting and may reflect differences in people - veterinarians and/or farmers. Some researchers found that exposure to painful procedures increased sensitivity by the farmer or veterinarian to pain and likelihood of using pain mitigation; whereas another study found that exposure to pain led to decreased use of pain mitigation, indicating possible desensitization to pain. There are examples in human medicine where nurses or doctors become desensitized to pain mitigation needs of their patients as well. Working through these beliefs relative to patient needs is important.

Questions about thresholds for pain mitigation (e.g., when medication is given, differences in pain based on age, treatment, or procedure) may improve animal welfare management. Other studies suggest that reduction of lameness in the dairy industry is hampered by lack of understanding of the pain associated with various types of lameness. One study proposed that the way lameness symptoms are described may be responsible for slow progress toward lowering incidence of lameness. Those researchers proposed that this minimized the belief that lameness was painful to the dairy cow.

Differences in Perspectives or Frames of Reference

It has been suggested that slowness or inability to improve animal welfare is due to both farmer and advisor beliefs. For example, inability to reduce lameness on dairies may be due to an underestimation by farmers of the extent of the problem. Failure to properly treat pain associated with lameness may be due to lack of knowledge by both the farmer and veterinarian on how to evaluate and/or treat pain effectively, as well as the benefits of pain management to animal welfare.

Research suggests that having on-farm experience managing disease may improve one’s view that on-farm procedures have an impact on the level of disease. The same may be true of animal welfare. A study in the Netherlands suggests that farmers act when they believe a problem exists and that the threshold for determining a problem (e.g. lameness) varies by farm. The veterinarian’s training in disease management and pain relief, along with their on-farm relationship, may positively influence farmer beliefs about disease thresholds and pain relief. The veterinarian’s involvement, at least initially in pain mitigation methods may contribute to increased use to relieve an animal’s pain and validate the positive impact to the farmer thereby leading to continuous use.

One study found that farms employing a routine veterinary assisted herd health program were more likely to use pain relief during dehorning. In addition, they found that when farms adopted pain relief, the herd veterinarian was often influential in that decision. This may indicate that the veterinarian and farmer agreed on the issues and their importance from the start. It may also be that after the veterinarian provided advice and demonstrated how to give pain mitigation medication, the farmer complied and a positive impact was observed. In other words, likely over time and as the farmer saw the benefit to individual animals, her belief in the importance of pain relief led to its' long-term use and compliance with the practice.

Goals and Priority Communications

Several studies have found that veterinarians often do not understand how their clients prioritize animal welfare improvements and how they relate to economic concerns and farm goals. One researcher identified poor communication between farmer and veterinarian. It has been suggested that improved communications about cost concerns and farm goals may reduce these barriers. Others suggest that cooperation between farmers and veterinarians on animal welfare issues may be slowed by lack of mutual understanding of costs and priorities.

Several studies have found farmers more likely to participate in biosecurity programs if they had personally experienced the impact of breaches in biosecurity. Farmers without biosecurity breaches were more concerned with the tangible costs of preventive practices and did not foresee the longer-term benefits.

Farmer’s williness to pay for pain relief has been studied and these results are also interesting. One study found that although farmers were willing to pay for pain relief during dehorning they were unwilling to cover the total cost. Another study found that farmers did not use a local block during dehorning and cited cost of drugs as the main reason.

A British study found that farmers underestimated the economic cost of lameness to their dairies and as a result the costs of prevention and treatment were not considered to be of value. A study of Dutch farmers found that by reducing the financial impact of lameness on individual dairies, farmers became motivated to implement treatments as long as the measures were considered to be cost-effective. Another study also found that cost does influence farmer motivation to address animal welfare.

The veterinarian’s perspective of their client’s willingness to pay for treatment and/or service may also affect their willingness to perform or advocate for improvements in animal welfare. One study of biosecurity found that the farmer’s willingness to pay for biosecurity enhancements deterred veterinarians from even discussing the topic with their clients. Another study found that while veterinarians thought vaccination was important for disease prevention, their willingness to provide advice was based on the farmer’s ability to see the economic value of that vaccination. Again, this may be influenced by quality of the relationship between the veterinarian and their producer client.

Additional studies evaluated the beliefs of veterinarian and farmers on the cost of pain mitigation for various procedures. Some studies found that veterinarians were more concerned than farmers about the cost of pain relief for dehorning and also for cost of treatment for hoof disorders. There is also some information suggesting that veterinarians may overestimate or underestimate the importance of economic factors as a motivation for using animal welfare practices. One study found that farmers thought the cost of treatment was the least important barrier to treating lameness and their primary reason for reducing lameness was to reduce cow pain and suffering.

Goal Communication

Based on surveys, both veterinarians and dairy farmers believe that the veterinarian’s role on-farm is to promote health and welfare of their animals. However, several factors appear to be barriers to animal welfare improvements. Communications between dairy farmer and veterinarian often involve breeding and milk production topics and rarely include animal welfare topics. Discussion of animal welfare is likely worse on farms without a routine herd health program involving a veterinarian. This may be due to time or any number of reasons.

Farmer compliance appears to be a challenge to implementation of animal welfare practices and may stem from differences
in beliefs or misunderstanding of beliefs. In addition, failure of the veterinarian to incorporate or understand farm goals for animal welfare is considered by some farmers as a likely deterrent to adoption of improved animal welfare practices on-farms.

Studies of farm goals found that veterinarians often thought they knew client preferences when they actually did not. They were overly critical of animal welfare on-farms which deterred their farmer clients from implementing improvements. Farmers surveyed said when they did not comply with their veterinarian's advice it was because of poor alignment between that advice with the farm's goals.

Future Work

Based on their review of the available research, Sumner and colleagues found that more research is needed to better understand and advance communications between veterinarian and dairy producer within the field of animal welfare management. Future work they've identified as being needed, and their conclusions are highlighted below:

1. The animal welfare beliefs of dairy farmers and veterinarians about the natural living adaptations of calves, heifers, and cows are limited. Research is needed to better understand these concerns and how they relate to animal welfare concerns of the public.

2. A few studies found that farmers and/or veterinarians also have concerns about certain aspects of natural living conditions, including:

  • Restricted movement in Tie-stall barns
  • Reduced pasture access when total confinement housing is used
  • Time that calf and dam are together after birth

3. The dairy farmer and veterinarian may reject public concerns as being based on lack of knowledge:

  • Little is known about how the dairy farmer and veterinarian may improve collaboration to best respond to public concerns about animal welfare.
  • Our knowledge on how best to address this will improve as more farms adapt to community concerns on animal welfare.

4. Reduction in antibiotic use by organic dairy farms is considered an example of adaptation to public animal welfare concerns.

  • Research suggests that farmers with organic dairy farms have increased their belief that disease will resolve without antibiotic treatment, while veterinarians are more confident in conventional treatment approaches.
  • Surveyed farmers felt that lack of discussion with veterinarians on organic farming beliefs hinders collaboration. Per research findings, better relationships between farmers and their veterinarians, and built around the organic dairy goals and animal welfare, are needed.


Improved farmer and veterinarian discussions may lessen animal welfare concerns on-farm and by the general public. Enhanced communication is needed to better address priorities on-farm. Although research suggests that dairy farmers and veterinarians may differ in their perspectives on animal welfare, they also share common concerns and beliefs. Areas of commonality as well as differences should be discussed and relative to costs and farm goals. Improvements in animal welfare on dairies should provide better conditions for animals and lessen public concerns. Based on current evidence and conditions it is very likely that the general public will continue to demand improvements in how farm animals are raised.


“Perspectives of farmers and veterinarians concerning dairy cattle welfare.” Animal Frontiers 2018. 8(1): Pg. 8-13. Christine Sumner, Marina A.G. von Keyserlingk, Daniel M. Weary. Animal Welfare Program at University of British Columbia.

Dr. Sandy Costello

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