How do I become a veterinary technician or assistant?

Becoming a RVT is easy. You do need to go through some higher education. All the guidelines can be found online at so please go to their website and check out what they allow you to do. Please don’t listen to the people who tell you that you only need an associate degree. I mean, it’s technically true except it’s not “AN” associate degree, it’s “THE” associate degree.

Becoming a CVA is also easy but you have to get the job first and because you only have a high school diploma and no official credentials, finding work as an assistant can be a challenge. Once you do get started, though, you can become eligible for the CVA program.



Recently, one of my friends shared a video from PETA of an undercover sting on a Chinese fur farm. PETA is frankly not my favorite welfare organization because they are not above overzealous propaganda but there was one scene in that video that cut the cake for me.

The camera has zoned in on a pile of skinned animals. Since the skin has been removed, you can see the teeth. The throat of the nearest head is pulsing, which indicates respiration; what looks like an anatomical model is breathing. As the head turns slowly and is laid against the side of the body, you can see that its eyes are blinking. One of the eyes still has fur around it, as does one of the forefeet. It continues to blink. Abruptly, the head flops back to where it was at first.

It was eerie.

I don’t know if these animals’ fur is being sold in California but I can tell you that if this is the case, this situation is part of a much larger problem. China is a difficult country to understand in terms of how it operates but what many people that I encounter don’t realize is that this is the dark side of the U.S. and maybe other countries, not China itself.

The U.S. has a nasty habit of giving its dirty jobs to countries when it is more convenient to do so. The reason that the U.S. is not all a horribly contaminated toxic waste bin is that much of our production has been shunted off to different countries. How much of your shit is “Made in China”? Those had to be made by factories. If the factories weren’t in China, they’d be in the U.S.

Do you know why the U.S. is never going to be able power itself on sustainable energy and resource use? Because we ignore the fact that our ecological footprint extends far beyond U.S. borders in both distance and magnitude. China isn’t polluting the air; we are. I don’t even need to investigate or to research or to pull data from anywhere. The proof is in my house, my friend’s house, my neighbor’s house, my cousin’s house: all the clothes and appliances that say, “Made in China.” Even if I wanted to buy all “Made in U.S.A,” I either don’t have access because all the U.S. manufacturers went out of business or I can’t afford it.

The people who skinned that animal don’t know any better. I would be wasting my breath to tell them about nerve receptors and stress response because if they had enough education to understand what I’m talking about, they wouldn’t be working where they are. I’d be wasting my breath to tell them about morality and ethics and animal souls because China is an atheist country. What they do understand is money. That’s the type of country China is. You ask for electronics, they make electronics. You ask for fur, they get you fur. If you don’t put your foot down about how reliable their electronics are or how they get their fur, they’ll do a 1-year warranty job as cheaply as possible.

For starters, we need to do our part in ending fur import.

I want to stress that it is not necessarily the fur trade itself but industrialization of the fur trade, where it became an assembly line business, that is hurting individual animal welfare. American beef, American leather: we’re always going to use animal products and I don’t think it’s entirely a bad thing. There’s a difference between assembly line production and quality craftsmanship. If someone had a herd of cattle, killed one for butchery (beef), and sold the skin to a tanner or similar craftsman, who made shoes or a purse out of it, I would have no problem with buying those shoes or that purse. I don’t approve of fox farms but if they kept their foxes in a barn instead of a wire cage and shot their foxes in the head instead of skinning them alive, I would probably not be too upset about fur. I don’t like fur terribly much as an ornament but I like the feel and the insulation: but not enough to buy inhumanely produced fur.

Don’t buy real fur unless you have the resources to trace it backwards and make sure that the animal was [raised and] killed in a way that is acceptable to you.

Don’t throw paint at people who are wearing fur or leather. For all you know, they could be wearing fake fur or fair trade, ethically raised and manufactured leather, and they could be trying to help fix the industry in their own ways. If it bothers you, just ask politely and discuss politely. The best way to get someone on your side is to convince them that you’re on their side.

Spread the word about fake fur and how wonderfully realistic it is. I know, I have some. It’s amazingly soft, it looks fabulous, and it wasn’t taken off of a living animal. It might not be as warm as real fur but it’s an A+ alternative for people who like fur for the look and feel.

Raccoons are wild animals, too

Raccoons are remarkably clever critters. They are not domesticated yet they thrive among people. They have hands, like we do, and the will to find food, like bears do. They look like masked bandits and they steal from dumpsters. They’re cute and small, around the size of a cat, so begging is also an option.

Do not make it easy for them.

Raccoons learn fast. If you accidentally leave food out once but never again, they won’t bother you much. If you leave food out often, they’ll come like clockwork. It’s not just that, though. Once these guys figure out that camper baggage is full of goodies and that the campers won’t actually hurt them, they get very bold. I’ve seen campers who brought too much food to fit in their animal-proof food locker, trying to shake off prowling raccoons for a good hour or two before giving up and deciding to take their party elsewhere. I’ve heard of raccoons going into an unattended cooler of food, throwing out the top layer with the condiments and going straight to the bottom. I’ve heard of raccoons breaking into cars to poop on the driver’s seat. I kid you not. These guys are a nuisance.

These problem raccoons have been trained over time. People who deal with them always want a solution but the only really effective one is to not train the raccoons to look for food in human belongings by controlling access. It’s like baby-proofing your house except babies grow out of the urge to put everything in their mouths and wild animals don’t.

The psychology that goes into people intentionally feeding wild animals is really interesting, too. Sometimes, it’s just because begging animals are really good at tugging at heartstrings but probably just as often, it’s because people reward themselves for it. “I’m helping wild animals survive. They need me.” “This wild animal let me feed it. It trusts me. It must be that I’m a special person acknowledged by this wild animal.” When people fall into these psychological traps, they help turn raccoons into the little feral monsters that urban raccoons are.

Aside from the problems that furry little urban marauders cause for people, this can also be a biological problem, affecting the quality of their nutrition, the perpetuation of natural habits (failing to fulfill their role as omnivorous mesopredators), and other aspects of their population health (disease incidence, genetic issues, et cetera). I do think that it’s good when wild animals can persist in cities but the study of how that actually works out for them is a very new branch of research.

In conclusion: FOR THE LAST TIME. Pick up your shit or bolt it down, and don’t feed the wild animals.

How do I become a veterinarian?

I get asked all the time by students of all ages who want to be a vet and to get their degree in California. What should I do? What should I major in?

First, let me address vet assistant and vet tech hopefuls who don’t want to be in higher education for 8-12 years: I will deal with you later.

For the rest of you, there are really 2 routes to vet school, particularly UCD SVM: community college transfer to 4-year university or entering a 4-year uni directly. 4-year as in five years of trying really hard to get a 3.6 GPA.

Community college is really a way to get all your prerequites done at a reasonable price. I recommend spending the bare minimum of time there by taking your public speaking/composition, biology, chem, ochem, calc, stats, physics, and maybe RVT program and NOTHING ELSE (not even IGETC) unless there’s a mind-blowingly fun class. RVT programs have the additional benefit of setting you up for a part-time job that can get you a fabulous letter of rec (now called “evaluation letters” or something). CHECK to make sure you’re taking the right ones: not all science classes are created equal. For example, AP Bio or the equivalent at a community college only counts for BIS 10 at UCD. BIS 10 is completely useless and I quote, “Designed for students not specializing in biology.” Science classes are central to any career with animals so do not cut those corners.

Now read this aloud three times: “Going to UCD as an undergraduate will not improve my chances at the UCD vet school.” I actually had a full ride honors scholarship at Cal Poly Pomona that I turned down (after much deliberation). Their Animal Science major is tailored for pre-vets (Animal Health Sci is their RVT major), the tuition is lower than a UC even without scholarships, and the smaller classes are probably more conducive to higher grades. CPP aside, I’ve glanced through the statistics and applicants from other universities have had about the same probability of getting UCD SVM acceptance as applicants from UCD.

You just need to be sure of two things. You need to be sure that the required classes are offered at the university you want, and you need to be sure that you will be able to pull a 3.5 GPA, give or take a fifth of a point. Besides having awesome grades in the required classes (and their prerequisites, don’t forget those), you can take whatever classes you want as long as your college/uni lets you get a degree with it. Chances are, the unit cap gives you enough space to major in something interesting while completing the minimum requirements for all AVMA vet schools (never hurts to keep your options open).

After you settle your academic strategy, you can start thinking about finding work with veterinarians and maybe other respectable adults such that you can get an evaluation from them. These evaluations are scored, so make sure you’re awesome enough to rate high. It’s also possible to get a supervisor that couldn’t care less and would give you great scores even if you only did the bare minimum but would that be that a gamble you’d want to take?

Getting into vet school is simple in theory but life happens and that’s something else that you should watch out for. Maybe you’ll realize that you actually like plants better, maybe you want to go into research, maybe you love the fluffies but you’re just as interested in human medicine or music or education or business. You don’t have to be a veterinarian to be an intelligent person promoting animal welfare. Welfare is an interdisciplinary field. To achieve what we want, we need people who know a lot (economics, politics, sociology, philosophy, ethics, ecology, physiology, psychology/cognition), people who can reach out (rhetoric, graphics, marketing), and people who can integrate both (canny business people, managers). When you decide that you’re going to gun for vet school, the pressure to beat the competition and the prospects of debt from dealing with rising tuition can get to your head. You need to be sure that you can do this, that you want to do this, and that you have the flexibility needed to achieve your goal: maybe not on schedule but eventually is good enough.

Saving wolves

I realize this isn’t a California thing but I’m sure it’s still a topic of interest.

They’ve got this petition thing going about a Michigan bill threatening the survival of local wolves.

You know what? Let’s be fair and look at this step-by-step.

Why would anybody shoot a wolf?

Profit or fear. Or both. If it’s not for wolf pelts, it’s for the threat they pose to livestock. Doing it for profit is stupid. I admit that I love the feel of fur but that’s why we have super awesome synthetic fur that even experts can’t tell apart from real fur without taking it apart. Fear is something that I can understand. I don’t agree that shooting wolves is the solution, but I understand that when people are trying to make a living off of something vulnerable to attack by wild predators, they can feel very antagonistic to wolves.

Step one. Let us not demonize people who have legitimate reasons to dislike wolves. They are not bloodthirsty if they’re not shooting wolves for the sake of killing. They are doing something that I call Looking Out For Their Interests and we all do it. Also, wolves and dogs are different, so forget about that shooting-the-dog analogy. Those who insist on slandering strangers should at least attempt to sound intelligent—not brainwashed—and take it easy on English grammar (eliminating excess phrasing such as “could potentially” might help but not much). Instead of flying off into picket-and-sign world, let us take a moment and remember that there is an underlying problem that needs to be addressed.

Step two. Let us fill out a bit of background for the problem. It is not healthy for wolves to be hunted, obviously, but it is also not healthy for them to switch from wild prey to domestic prey. The whole wolf-in-the-flock thing is not good for the flock owners and it is not good for the wolves. It is a LOSE-LOSE situation and so far, I only see people coming up with one-way solutions. Good to see people putting their higher intelligence to work. [sarcasm here]

Step three. Let us determine the real problems.

Poachers are theoretically much easier to deal with: crack down on real fur and replace it with quality synthetic fur. Ranchers are more difficult. The problem is that wolves, like many wild animals, are opportunistic feeders. Out of all the things from which they can derive nutrients, they will pick the easiest one to catch.

We’re dealing with animal behavior, wildlife management, public lands management, encroachment on territory, economics, et cetera. We hear about people getting their houses foreclosed and being unable to find somewhere else to go: it probably isn’t much easier to relocate people with herds of livestock, which need lots of grazing area to keep happy. The wolves were there first, and then the people settled there before anyone knew enough to realize what a bad idea that would be. Maybe there isn’t really a better place to go, anyway.

Wild animals don’t understand things like borders. Wolves have territories that they enforce but unless the climate in a certain place is completely uninhabitable for wolves, they’re not going to understand that rancher land is No Wolf’s Land. That’s the problem. We have people raising large herds of ideal prey (domesticated and unfit for survival on their own) right next to wolves’ native lands. It’s not possible to not get problems. The government can uproot a people and reassign their territory but animals don’t use contracts and deeds.

Step four. We need a working solution. All we’ve got right now is sticking “problem” wolves in a zoo and hoping the others don’t learn to do the same. The situation is set up so that there is no way that a wolf that knew a thing about livestock being accessible would choose not to go for it. Wolves are smart. At the same time, it’s not good for the wolf population to habitually go for such easy prey. We like our wolves healthy, right?

I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe we should play the natural selection game and breed domestic livestock that are also fit to defend themselves from wolves. Wolves keep elk herds healthy by culling them so maybe we could let them do the same for us. The thing is that people are so absorbed in numbers that it freaks them out when there’s a wild card messing with their head count. Plus, livestock has been bred to be so manageable that if ranchers just sat back and ate their losses, I wouldn’t be surprised if they lost everything in a few years.

As a founder of CAW, I really want to emphasize that animal welfare is not as simple as “We can’t risk any hurt to nonhumans.” I’m not saying that the picture isn’t black and white. Shooting the wolves is not fair for them but telling ranchers to suck it up is not fair for them, either. I believe that there is no gray area between right and wrong but I also believe that a win-win solution isn’t always feasible. Make no mistake: whatever the best solution is, it’s not going to be invented in an hour by a young blogger. This is kind of an odd post in that I’m not telling you to do this or to do that, but to think for yourself and not sign everything if the only reason is that it has fiery language.


Fladry, or the practice of hanging little flags strung up in a line at wolf eye-level to create a visual barrier has historically been very effective in Eastern Europe, although it’s not established how well it would work on wolves in North America and how long it would last before wolves figure out that it’s easy to get past. It would probably be best combined with periodic patrols (a.k.a. an actual barrier instead of a psychological one) to reinforce it. Just my two cents.

The Emasculator: Sorry, guys, it has to be done

So, I didn’t know that there were people that were against the idea of castrating food animals. So let’s get a few things straight. But first! Some background:


  • A bull is an intact male cattle.
  • A steer is a castrated male cattle.
  • A heifer is a young cow. (Cows are female.)
  • A buck is an intact male goat.
  • A ram is an intact male sheep.
  • A wether is a castrated male sheep or goat.

What kinds of animals are castrated?

  • Dogs
  • Cats
  • Horses
  • Pigs
  • Cattle
  • Goats
  • Sheep

How does castration work?

To be fair, I will show you the concerns first, but stick with me—castration is an essential part of livestock production. And it’s certainly not done to be mean. For different kinds of animals, there are different methods of castration. For calves, the blood supply to the testicles is interrupted with a castration clamp or a rubber ring or latex rubber band. The testicles then shrink and completely regress (Burdizzo method) or slough off (band method). My personal favorite method is with an emasculator (c’mon, that’s just fun to say), where the spermatic cord is crushed and cut to prevent hemorrhaging while still detaching the testes. This is typically done without anesthetic, but also very quickly; in the band method, the testicles will go numb over a period of time, about ten minutes. Based on a survey by Kansas State University, one in five veterinarians in the US use anesthetics or analgesics. Fun fact: human men use the Burdizzo method and the band method on themselves sometimes. The more you know! With pigs, the most common method of castration is with a surgical knife. The method is as follows (adapted from the pig industry handbook)

  1. Hold the piglet by both hind legs with its head down.
  2.  Using the thumb, push up on both testicles.
  3.  Make an incision through the skin of the scrotum over each testicle in the direction of the tail.
  4.  Be sure the incisions are made low on the scrotal sac to allow for fluid drainage.
  5. It does not matter if you cut through the white membrane of each testicle or not.
  6. Pop the testicles through each incision and pull on them slightly.
  7. Pull each testicle out while pressing your thumb against the piglet’s pelvis.
  8. Thumb pressure on the pelvis is important to ensure that the testicular cords break off at the point of your thumb rather than deep inside the body, which may promote development of a hernia.
  9. If necessary, the testicle may be cut free of the cord using a scraping motion.
  10. Cut away any cord or connective tissue protruding from the incision and spray the wound with antiseptic.

I’ve heard some complaints that the wound is left open. Yeah, it looks a little freaky, but it’s good to let it drain. Trust me. Even veterinarians in a clinic on an operating table leave it open sometimes.

Why castrate?

Aggression: Frankly, intact male livestock are a danger to other animals in the herd and to the humans that work with them. Of course,  certain animals are kept intact for breeding, and they are dangerous to work with. Dairy bulls are notorious for their aggression—they will kill someone who enters their pen. Now imagine a herd of a thousand head of cattle, and half of them are pumped up with their natural testosterone, and rarin’ for a fight. Not a good time!

Problems of breeding: Ranchers get to pick which cows are bred and keep tabs on them. They can be given treatments and separated from the herd as they near their time to give birth. If the choice is taken out of the farmer’s hands, calves and cows could be lost to medical complications because the owner didn’t know this or that cow was pregnant. Genetic disorders are a risk if brothers and sisters may mate, and certainly some heifers that are too young to carry offspring will undergo extreme physical stress. Dairy calves are especially susceptible to disease, and must be separated from the herd immediately or they will likely die.

Product: Yes, it’s true—the meat of some animals tastes better to customers when they are castrated. Also, animals tend to gain weight better.

Why not castrate?

It hurts. Some of us will consider this a temporary pain with long-term benefits to the animals and the people. Others will consider this an abuse that needs to be corrected.

What to do, what to do?

Look… we need to castrate farm animals. Disagree with the way it’s done, sure, but don’t say we don’t need to do it unless you’re willing to sacrifice human and animal lives for what can be considered a temporary pain.

So what can you do? We live in a country where customers say, “we want no drugs of any kind, we want no antibiotics, we want no hormones.” You, the customers, are going to have to make a decision. Do you want anesthetics to be used? Speak up. It will cost money. You have to be willing to pay, because that farmer is not going to go bankrupt just so you can feel better. Some counties have outlawed non-anesthetized castration, and that’s fine, if you can get the whole country to do it. The problem is, when your public is uninformed and sees the local meat prices go up, they buy from out of state or imported meat. So, you run into the problem where you hurt your local farmers. I believe in voting with dollars. We’ve talked about this before, in our hog article, about market-driven changes. If enough people write to McDonald’s, for instance, to say “I want my animals raised like this”, and it’s a reasonable demand, changes happen.

Alternative Methods

There is research on hormonal castrations that are no more painful than an injection. The injection ultimately decreases the production of testosterone for a certain amount of time. It’s expensive and requires more labor, as several injections are required, but there are definitely benefits in animal welfare.

The problem? Holy shit, it’s a hormone. Consumers don’t want it. News flash. You eat hormones every day. They’re natural. It’s protein—you digest them like protein. And, if you’re a woman, you might be taking birth control—a hormone pill! Please. Sounding scientificial doesn’t make something bad.

And now you know the thing that pisses me off: when animal welfare progress is halted because people don’t know any better. Here’s what a lot of people don’t know: topics like this are discussed so much in scientific research, as veterinarians try and find new, better ways to do common practices. It is essential that that happens first, before you fly into a courtroom without offering any alternatives to the practice. It is important to remember that new technology is always emerging, and you will see farmers trying different things to see which is better for them and their animals. The pain associated with castration is a challenge they have to face, but let’s not demonize this practice or assume that ranchers do it because they’re sadistic—they don’t. These are people who take pride in raising up a big, fit healthy animal.

See also:

(Post Script: And I promise castration doesn’t ruin the rest of their lives! Those steers and cows running around on the grassy ranches of Northern California look pretty damn happy to me!)

You would want small cages if you were a hog

As always, and I will emphasize now, this article deals with California and to some extent, the USA. On this particular topic, I found lots and lots of articles on Europe, but their farms are different, their hogs are different, and I’m relying on data obtained in the States.

O.K.! Before I get started, let’s get some farming terms down. A Gestation Crate: a metal enclosure that restricts turning around in which a pregnant sow is kept for the duration of her pregnancy, about four months. A Farrowing Crate: a wider metal enclosure in which a pregnant sow is kept during labor and nursing, approximately one week.

There has been much confusion in animal welfare talk between farrowing crates and gestation crates. Allow me to be blunt.

Gestation crates are a huge welfare concern. Farrowing crates are a huge welfare benefit.

Gestation crates are being phased out of much of conventional farming (a market driven decision—who knew?). The sows would be housed in a small crate in which they cannot turn around. They only stand up and lay down, for months. The crates are banned in California, a lot of farmers don’t like them, and every animal science professor that I’ve had doesn’t like them. And yes, there have been arguments for their merits—the hogs are protected from one another. The farmer can keep an eye on each individual hog. And, you know, if the farmer loves his or her animals and does a good job, I can see it working in a case-by-case basis—but on the whole, I’d like to see them gone. In California, you typically see group housing (which is its own welfare concern—seems manageable, though).

Farrowing crates are a different story—in fact, they’re very important to ensuring animal welfare. Here’s why:

Sows are big. And fat. And they smell bad—but mostly, we’re concerned about them being big and fat. They really don’t know how to manage their mass. Mother sows, left to their own devices, will stand, meander a bit, turn around and lie down—on their babies.

That’s right. They will accidentally kill off their own litter by crushing them.

The farrowing crate is designed so that there is a barrier that the piglets can get through, but not the sow. The sow may stand, turn around, lay down, and the piglets are free so scurry past the barrier to safety. So, the sow gets a week in less-than-accomodating conditions (although, frankly, they don’t look upset—I can’t tell you why) and the piglets get to nurse from their mother and live to tell the tale.

So, imagine you are a newborn piggie. It’s your first day out of the womb, and it’s bright and not so warm and cozy as it used to be, but at least you get to meet mom face-to-face for the first time. “But wait… what? Mom’s about to lie down—wait—can’t you see me? Wait, mom, stop—noooo!”

One professor gave a similar skit, complete with a look of horror. It was between horrifying and hilarious. What can I say? I’m dark.

Point is, if you were a piglet, wouldn’t you be glad that there’s such a thing as a farrowing crate?

See also:

Vaccine reactions

There are a lot of people who want to know just why they should vaccinate their animals. and Aimee’s Rabies Exemption Law are both very, um, zealous examples. In California, we even have the Hagman bill allowing dogs who get sick from rabies vaccines to get a signed doctor’s note. (Yes, it must be a doctorate in veterinary medicine.)

The Hagman bill is proof that vaccines are dangerous, right? Why should we risk any vaccination at all? For one, putting your pet on titers* is much more expensive than getting a vaccine if your pet is like most others, not to mention that there are a lot of restrictions on the freedom of dogs who aren’t vaccinated against rabies. For another, an animal without a vaccine is a health risk, especially with zoonotic diseases like rabies and lepto. You don’t want to be the owner of a dog who bit somebody and didn’t have rabies shots on file. Plus, reactions are rare.

Most cats and dogs do not develop painful conditions from vaccines developed for them. Cats do react more than dogs do and as far as anyone knows, it’s a species thing. The key word is non-adjuvant: try to stick with these types of vaccines if you have a kitty. Adjuvant-ed vaccines are more effective at what they’re supposed to do but cats seem to be sensitive to them. Now. Reactions that can kill will probably happen while your vet is still talking to you so if they do happen, your vet should be able to do something to save your pet’s life right away. If you’re really worried, watch for the first 3 hours, keep an eye out for the next 21 hours. If 24 hours and all’s well, nothing freaky should happen afterward as a result of the vaccine.

One preventative step that you can try is spacing out your vaccines (if you’re doing the whole catalogue). The only issue with that is that you’re paying for more than one visit so it really depends on how worried you are about vaccine reactions and what your budget is. Of course, if you’re getting only rabies because that’s what the law requires yet your dog still reacts, this suggestion is null.

Also, for the most part, we won’t look at you too funny if you have an indoors-only cat who hates the clinic like nothing else and decide not to vaccinate. I know a vet who has one of those madly fractious cat and forgoes its shots because it ain’t worth it. Is it a health risk? Oh, yeah. But if the law doesn’t require it, it’s entirely up to you and your wallet.

So after your pet’s gotten a shot, any shot, what should you look out for? Drowsiness is normal. Call your vet if the skin where the vaccine was injected looks red or swollen or seems itchy to the animal. (“Call your vet” as in “Take two and call me in the morning.”) Get your dog to emergency if your pet breaks out in hives, gets tummy upset, or starts puking (your vet may use the word anaphylactic).

Now, you should kind of have some idea of what the risks and benefits of these vaccines are. If your vet isn’t talking to you about them, you should probably ask. At the end of the day, it comes down to what is the best for your pet. Some pets really don’t need some of the shots that your hyper-vigilant vet might strongly recommend. Some of your pets could do with some of the shots that all your animal rights activist friends are vehemently opposed to. Some of the diseases that routine vaccines prevent may never show up but if they do, the hospital fees that you end up paying may cost more than the fees for regular vaccines for fourteen years. You should find out first whether your pet must not have vaccines before you decide what’s the best health plan for your pet.

*Titers test the levels of antibodies to determine whether the dog is capable of handling a certain disease without vaccines. It’s sort of like skipping measles vaccinations you’ve had the disease before. This doesn’t work for all diseases like it does for measles so your dog would need to get titers regularly for life. Not a cheap option.

How do you like your eggs: cage-free or scrambled?

Before I say anything, let’s get some terminology and farming practices down. Broiler and fryer chickens are for eating. Layer chickens are for laying eggs. Broilers and fryers are not raised in battery cages. They are also slaughtered before they reach the age when they become aggressive. Layers are raised in battery cages, usually. They reach the age of aggression and they fight. To mitigate the damage that may occur in a fight, the tips of the beaks are clipped. Whether or not pain is involved depends on age, method, a lot of things, but that’s not the topic of today’s piece. Finally, no matter what you do, layers are prone to osteoporosis. It comes of all the calcium they use to form the eggshells on their eggs.

Okay! Let’s go.

I can understand why a person would have a problem with the poultry industry. I really do. Yes, laying hens are kept in cramped battery cages. No, they can’t stretch out and walk around, and yes, they are prone to leg problems and behavioral problems.

But do NOT assume cage-free is better.

This is the dilemma we face in the States. Certain animal rights groups (notably, the HSUS) and others who don’t understand poultry farming oversimplify a complex issue in order to pass feel-good legislature that really doesn’t help. Here’s the deal: cage and cage-free systems both have different welfare problems.

What do we see in a cage-free system?

First up, we have group housing, indoors. I’m not talking backyard farming, I’m talking production-size farming. Chickens fight. They will kill and eat their housing mates. Air quality is poor. Diseases and parasites run rampant, as there is no buffer against the spread of infectious diseases. Broken bones happen. Chickens will injure themselves more often, as now they are free do to so. Fear and hysteria rises. Mortality is way up.

Then, we have the outdoor housing problems. Predation. Humans aren’t the only ones who like to eat chicken–coyotes do too. Again, parasites, diseases and bone fractures. Mortality, way up.

Battery cages were, and are, an effort to correct those problems. But what are our new problems when we use battery cages? Chickens lack bone strength, and they may still get bone-related injuries. They can’t exhibit their natural behaviors anymore: they can’t perch, they can’t nest, they can’t dustbathe, and they can’t forage.

But wait! There’s a second kind of cage—an Enriched Cage—that might not be so bad.

Enriched Cages are an attempt to mitigate the problems posed by caging and cage-free systems. You can see the last URL in today’s article for a live “hen cam” of this system. It is a form of group housing, with areas that allow the chickens to exhibit their natural behaviors: dustbathing, roosting and the use of a nest box. The disease level and cannibalism level is intermediate to that of either existing system. If I had to choose between (A) being a little picked on and a little sick or (B) being potentially eaten by my roommate and dying from plague, I think I pick option A.

And here’s the sad truth. Because it’s still a cage, and because the chickens can’t all fully extend their wings and turn around without touching each other (see Proposition 2 of California, 2008), certain animal rights groups say this isn’t good enough. They want it outlawed. “No animal should live in a cage” and all that. In all honesty? It makes my blood boil. The data clearly shows that cage-free is horrendous in comparison. Isn’t the enriched caging system better than the system they are pushing–general group housing?

And here’s another thing. Legislation like that of Proposition 2 scares farmers. Why? Too vague. It’s not a hard number to follow, and they risk being shut down for a violation when they thought they were following the rules.

And as a last point. A small farm that houses a few chickens that are well taken care of can’t meet the market demand for eggs. And, while in the beef and pork industries, your primary concern is size–and happy cattle and pigs grow better–eggs is a game of numbers. How many can you crank out? Because they’re coming daily no matter what. The cost of happy chickens doesn’t balance. And it’s not the farmer’s fault–if they don’t meet the market demand, they go out of business and now they can’t feed their own families. The best way to address animal welfare in the food industry is to be clever and make it profitable and humane, as is the case with just about every other animal in the industry.

So, you want to feel good about eating eggs? Visit your local egg farms and decide which ones you like. Or raise your own laying hens (I’ve heard mixed things from friends who own chickens—some fight, some play nice. This is thought to be related to population size). Or, you can just trust me and give enriched cages a little extra “hurrah!”

See also: (I apologize for using wikipedia as a resource, but the official text of Proposition 2 is now a dead link)

Myth Buster: There’s pus in the milk! (No, not really)

When you’re a city kid, like me, and you’ve grown up disconnected from the farm world, like me, it’s hard to know what’s true and what’s false when it comes to what you eat and where it comes from.

I’ve read it in books. I’ve heard it from peers. I’ve heard it from smart, educated people whom I respect. “There’s pus in the milk! The milk pumps irritate the udder, and there’s blood and pus that comes out with the milk! I saw a video of it!”

… no. My farm-savvy relatives nipped that one in the bud the moment I mentioned it. And now I have the opportunity to hang around dairies regularly and report what goes on.

Here’s a basic rundown of how it works at a California dairy. The cows are milked about twice a day. So far, I’ve never seen pus come out of udders as I stand to watch, washing off my work boots in the milk parlor. I see the dairy workers “stripping” the milk—a phrase that means “squirting some milk from the udder on the floor so they can see if there’s any pus or blood in it”. I see the dairy workers dipping the teats in a “pre-dip”, an antiseptic to kill bacteria (all the cows are using the same milk pumps so you want to make sure you prevent disease outbreak in the same way that you would wash your hands). These little suction pumps are put on the cows and they are milked. Purportedly, they enjoy this—some of them wait outside the milk parlor to be milked. Then, the dairy workers dip the teats again so no bacteria gets inside the teat. Bactera can cause a painful condition called mastitis.

Some humans might be familiar with mastitis. It happens to women as well. And whether you are a cow or a woman, lactation always carries a risk for mastitis. The symptoms? Inflammation, pus and blood.

But wait. I just said there ISN’T pus in the milk, right?

Let me explain.

First of all, there was the milk stripping that happened before anyone was milked. If there was, the cow would be marked to go to the sick pen. After that, guess what the curative treatment is?

You milk it out.

This milk doesn’t go into the bulk tank (where all the other milk is) but you have to milk out the pus to give the udder a chance to heal. Maybe this process is what people are seeing in undercover dairy videos. But it wouldn’t go into the bulk tank at a conventional dairy. Practically impossible.

Want to know why?

We got to the part where the cows were already milked. The milk is then stored in a bulk tank, where it awaits the milk truck to take it all away. The man on the truck takes a small sample of the milk for testing, which will go to a lab. The man then loads all the milk on the truck, to be pooled with all the milk the truck picked up from different dairies that day.

The milk sample goes to a lab. The lab tests for something called “somatic cell count”—a high number of somatic cells indicates potential mastitis. The magic number for the federal government is not exceeding 750,000 cells per milliliter. Remember, some cells are not avoidable. They’re tiny. Whenever you touch anything, you leave your cells behind–same thing for a cow. Nevertheless, California standards are stricter—not exceeding 600,000 cells per milliliter. As if to say, We’re California. We Take Our Milk Seriously.

But that’s not all. California tests for bacterial counts, generally, and coliform counts, specifically (coliform is a bacterial strain reflective of sanitation). Again, it’s impossible to have no bacteria. It’s impossible to live in an antiseptic world. The magic numbers for California: (Raw milk) not more than 50,000 bacteria per milliliter of milk. Not more than 750 bacteria per millilliter of laboratory-pasteurized milk. Not more than 750 coliform bacteria per milliliter of laboratory-pasteurized milk. (Market milk) not more than 15,000 bacteria per milliliter of milk. Not more than 10 coliform bacteria per milliliter of milk.

What happens if one sample from one dairy exceeds the limits?

All the milk on that truck is dumped. All of it. And the dairyman responsible for the waste pays for it.

So, no. Maybe, maybe you have trace amounts of red or white blood cells in milk, but like I said, it’s trace amounts.

And I keep hearing, “The blood is there, you just can’t see it because it was homogenized.” O.K. I’m no artist, but I didn’t know that red and white make white. Tell you what. Take a measure of blood, a good one or two ounces, and dump it in a half-quart of milk. Run your blender. When the blood disappears, call me.

See also: