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Sustainability: A veterinary Perspective

Sue Paterson - RCVS President 2023-24

This article originally appeared on the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change (UKHACC) website on 14 October and has been reproduced here with the kind permission of the UKHACC.

As veterinary surgeons we make a professional declaration on registration to promise to ensure the health and welfare of animals committed to our care. However, as we’re navigating the world through post-Covid recovery it is becoming increasingly obvious to veterinary professionals, both vets and vet nurses, that it isn’t just about animals committed to our care. We have a responsibility to the health and welfare of all animals, all over the world.

Veterinary professionals have the opportunity to contribute enormously to our post-Covid green recovery, whether that is through small changes at a practice level, such as looking at enhancing the on-site green space and promoting biodiversity in the surroundings, through to their contribution to sustainable, high-welfare agriculture. 

The publication of the Greener Veterinary Practice Checklist in the summer which has been endorsed universallySusan Paterson by UK veterinary stakeholders, is one of the first steps to help guide practices to become more sustainable. The checklist considers a range of different initiatives to help veterinary practices to produce a sustainability policy, something the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) has recently added as a requirement for practices who are accredited under its Practice Standards Scheme. The checklist promotes the responsible use of resources, for example, through asking practices to reduce fossil fuel use and making sustainable choices when purchasing equipment, as well as by optimising waste management by reducing, re-using and recycling. 

What is the RCVS doing?
As well as the aforementioned changes to the Practice Standards Scheme, the RCVS also started its own Environmental & Sustainability Working Party, of which I am the Chair, and has its own employee-led and very proactive Green Team. 

The Working Party has made several recommendations, the results of which the College will be sharing later this autumn.  We have been looking not only at how internal RCVS processes and policies can be improved from a sustainability point of view, but also at how these considerations and responsibilities can be integrated into how we regulate the veterinary professions. We are currently working with sustainability experts to explore how we can best achieve this and I’m excited for the College to show leadership in this space. 

One of the first recommendations the Working Party made was for the College to apply for an environmental accreditation through Investors in the Environment (iiE). This process is currently underway and is being managed by the Green Team, a staff-led initiative that has  already made significant progress in monitoring and reducing the College’s impact on the environment. From procurement, to recycling initiatives and waste disposal, the Green Team help to engage staff and empower them to make more sustainable choices. The team also marked Earth Day earlier this year and encouraged staff at the RCVS to use their lunch hour to be good to the environment by getting involved in different activities, such as a local litter pick, some gardening or to go plastic free for the day.

The formation of the Working Party also ties in nicely with our membership with the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change (UKHACC), for which I am very grateful. I think it’s extremely important that as members, we can share best practice and advice amongst the health professions, but also work together to engage with national and international policies on climate change through a health lens. The interconnectedness between human, animal and environmental health is at the core of our input into our contribution to the work of UKHACC.

What can veterinary professionals do?
Within veterinary clinics, good work is already being undertaken by veterinary professionals. For example, practitioners are critically assessing their use of anaesthetic gases as well as disposables. Travel policies are being developed to reduce emissions through business travel, the daily commute, client footfall and freight, and the responsible use of medicines is, of course, promoted. 

Antimicrobial stewardship has been on the veterinary agenda for many years but, more recently, the use of parasiticides has become an important second focus in responsible medicine use best practice. Routine blanket worming and ectoparasite policies have become a thing of the past in the equine and production animal sectors. Drugs are now carefully targeted to maintain animal welfare, and food safety, by justifying their use founded on a firm evidence base. Recommendations around the use of small animal parasiticides are not as well developed, but considerable work is underway to assess the environmental impact of topical ectoparasiticide drugs such as the neonicotinoids and fipronil. We know both groups of drugs can have profound effects on pollinators, and other invertebrates, when they get into the soil and can wipe out microbial communities in aquatic habitats, but what we don’t know yet is what percentage of those drugs come from their prophylactic use in domestic pets. 

Whether small animal pesticides contribute to environmental contamination or not, there is a groundswell of opinion for small animal vets to take a lead from their large animal counterparts and create personalised prophylactic parasite programmes for pets based on the needs of individuals, rather than the current one size fits all approach, as well as supporting the One Health conversation on the public understanding of responsible use of pharmaceuticals across the board. 

The important thing now must be to seize on the positive changes that veterinary professionals have within their grasp, such as engaging with the Greener Veterinary Practice Checklist or encouraging sustainable practices within their work. These small changes can make a huge difference to animals both in and beyond our care and will help to pave the way for a greener future for all.

Published on 27 October 2021