PART IV: Issues Relating to the New Greyhound Regulator

Chapter 15

THE ROLE OF VETERINARY SURGEONS IN GREYHOUND REGULATION

Introduction

Veterinary surgeons play an important role in the conduct of greyhound racing in Great Britain and, if satisfactorily and fully integrated into the sport could and should contribute even more to its good regulation and welfare. Indeed, the new animal welfare legislation will make veterinary surgeons key players in the delivery of welfare provision in greyhound racing and those that run, regulate and promote the sport, in both its licensed and unlicensed guises, need to be aware of this and be prepared to make appropriate adjustments to accommodate the realities of the changed legislative environment.

Veterinary surgeons currently carry out two prime functions as the agents, although not directly paid employees, of the NGRC: as track veterinarians and as kennel veterinarians. They also often provide private clinical services from their professional practices for the owners and trainers of greyhounds, but that is extra-regulatory and not of concern to us here. Veterinary surgeons are the professional people in the industry who look after the greyhounds without the emotional bias of the owner and without the financial interest of the commercial operators, be they professional trainers or promoters. They do so with the purpose of helping to maintain the integrity of the sport and, especially, of ensuring the welfare and fitness of individual racing greyhounds.

The Society of Greyhound Veterinarians

Veterinary surgeons are separately and professionally regulated as registered members of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) and, as such, subject to rigorous professional standards. They are particularly represented in relation to greyhound racing by the Society of Greyhound Veterinarians (SGV). The SGV was founded in 1965 and became affiliated to the British Veterinary Association as a non-territorial division the following year. Its founding objectives were to promote knowledge of the racing greyhound and to seek enhancement of the status of veterinary surgeons working at tracks. It is currently represented on seven important welfare committees and makes positive contributions to the sport via inputs to policy developments, organising research conferences and encouraging veterinary students to take an interest in greyhound racing. However, it is not clear how many racing greyhound veterinarians the SGV actually represents; it sometimes appears divided and has displeased authorities within the industry. Nevertheless, the SGV relies heavily on the BGRB for funding towards its administrative costs.

This Review received substantial evidence relating to the role of veterinary surgeons in the sport, primarily, though not exclusively, from the official veterinary bodies and from individual vets with much experience in greyhound racing. The thrust of that evidence described problems and suggested reforms in a number of areas, mainly concerning track vets. Their evidence generally related to the licensing, training, employment, authority, payment and independence of vets. These issues are summarised below together with our consequential recommendations.

Veterinary Support at Tracks

Track veterinarians are licensed by the NGRC but are employed and paid directly by the racecourse executives at the tracks at which they work. In their evidence to us, many vets claimed that their employment relationship can create a conflict of interest between their own professional judgement on greyhound welfare matters and the commercial interests of their employers. As a result, many feel that their independence is compromised and that they cannot fully express their views or exercise their professional skills without fear of adverse consequences: put bluntly, that they may in such a situation feel intimidated by their employers. But they must balance this against the fact that, ultimately, they must be guided by the RCVS which exists and serves to enforce its raison d'Ítre: to ‘safeguard the health and welfare of animals committed to veterinary care through the regulation of the educational, ethical and clinical standards of the veterinary profession, thereby protecting the interests of those dependent on animals and assuring public health7’.

Nevertheless, examples quoted include the issues arising when a track vet, or indeed an owner or trainer, feels that it is in the greyhound's interest to be withdrawn from a race on welfare grounds, yet the racecourse management will want to resist such withdrawal because of its commercial and especially betting need to fill a race card with runners in every trap. The track vet might also, for the dog's health reasons, wish to secure greater time intervals between when a greyhound races. Most serious would be if the vet were to conclude that the quality of a track surface was dangerous and threatening greyhound welfare and injuries, but is aware that cancellation of a meeting on those grounds would have damaging financial consequences for the promoter. Some vets believe that, if they took radical actions on welfare grounds in those situations, their own employment would be jeopardised; on the other hand, if they did not take what they believed to be appropriate action and a complaint were made to the RCVS and upheld, they would be vulnerable to disciplinary action from that quarter.

We have considered these potentially conflicting issues carefully and believe that owners/trainers should not be penalised for withdrawing their greyhounds from a race because of fear of injury if the veterinary surgeon, who under these recommendations has greyhound welfare as a prime responsibility, is convinced that such withdrawal is being made for genuine welfare or health reasons. Indeed, between them, the veterinary surgeon and/or the owner/trainer in charge of the greyhound at the time may have no choice but seek such withdrawal under their Duty of Care obligations if, by failing to do so, they knowingly put the animal at risk.

In the practice of everyday racing the situations are probably not as acute as this. It might not be a choice of either the vet complying or being punished. Few vets are dismissed and any promoter threatening dismissal must now, under new BGRB appeal procedures, justify such dismissal to the Board or lose the financial payments currently made from the BGRF to tracks to support the provision of veterinary/welfare services. Many track vets maintain long and satisfactory relationships with a particular course. That personal relationship has an aspect of mutual trust and understanding of benefit to both sides. But there is a danger that the track relationship becomes too "cosy" and that welfare compromises may be made along the way and this causes concern. As Dogs Trust stated in its evidence, the track vet is "the only welfare professional present on the racecourse and must therefore be independent enough to be able to voice concerns about welfare with authority and without fear of repercussions".

Vets also observe in more general terms that their perceived lack of independence leads to them suffering a lack of professional authority when dealing with track management, trainers or stewards, who may feel they can ignore a vet's advice with impunity. These problems of authority can be accentuated if the track vet - as the authors of this Review have personally observed - is, on the night, the youngest and least experienced of a local practice.

This issue of authority is now thrown into sharp relief and has become even more important as the Animal Welfare Act takes effect. Anyone conducting greyhound racing at a meeting may, in a particular instance, commit an alleged offence if they are a "person responsible to ensure welfare" and they fail in that duty; a responsibility more usually referred to as the Duty of Care. A track vet will, it seems to us, certainly be one of those who is a " person responsible to ensure welfare" and will thus have a prime obligation to carry out and enforce that Duty. It is therefore evident that a track vet must be equipped with the appropriate authority in relation to other officials to enable that statutory duty to be discharged without fear or favour.

Historically, it was usually assumed and accepted that the professional MRCVS qualification was evidence enough to guarantee a vet's unquestioned independence and that all veterinary functions would therefore be carried out in a manner beyond influence and bias.

Track operators, who select and pay a vet with whom they feel comfortable - or trainers employing their local friendly vets to inspect their kennels - still cite this argument, as they did in evidence to us. They resist suggestions that there may well be an inherent conflict of interest for a vet, who they pay to inspect their facilities, but who is then in the position of making a recommendation as to the continuance of their licence. These practitioners may well be correct and justified about the independent judgement of their own particular vets. But recent professional practice, including the modern principles of good governance and the advent of modern audit, does require that the independence of professional advice is transparently visible as well as rigorously followed. We therefore see a case for the introduction of an independent veterinary inspection regime for licensing.

Terms and Conditions of Employment

The terms and conditions of employment of veterinary surgeons, or lack of them, are clearly at the root of the independence of track vets and this Review received much advice on ways in which improvements might be introduced which would ensure greater independence for vets.

Some witnesses, including vets and welfare bodies, suggested that a centralised system of employment and payment by the Regulator would be desirable. This would have the advantage that the vets would be guaranteed independence from the track promoters and would not feel intimidated by them nor fear financial punishment should they take decisions on welfare grounds which offended the commercial interests of the operators. We have carefully considered these arguments.

However, the advantages and disadvantages of this approach are not all one-way. A centralised system might in practice prove inflexible, bureaucratic and not sufficiently responsive to the local needs and varying conditions represented by tracks of different size, with different scales and work loads. It might overturn longstanding relationships between a local track and its veterinary practice which already enjoys a proper balance of independence and mutual respect.

Therefore we propose a hybrid solution: one which seeks to strengthen the independence and authority of track vets but without the rigidities of a fully centralised system and without destroying existing valuable relationships with track management.

Local Contracts

As the figures below demonstrate, we are aware that by no means all track vets, and possibly even an overall minority, have a written contract with the track or tracks they serve. We do not think that this is acceptable in a modern professional regulatory environment, where the welfare of the racing greyhound is paramount. On the other hand, we recognise that not all tracks are the same and that, in particular, there are wide variations in levels of remuneration around the country and in work load at different tracks. This militates against a centralised system of contracts which, we think, would inevitably result in increased overall costs on the industry. We therefore propose that it should be a condition of a track licence that a contract exists with a veterinary surgeon or veterinary practice for the provision of services but that such contract be limited in scope to defining attendance commitments, rates of remuneration and notice periods which apply locally.

Standard National Service Level Agreements

Whilst we accept that variations between tracks may exist in limited spheres, such as remuneration and work load, we do not accept that there needs to be any variation in the overall level of professional services provided by vets or in the facilities and authorities provided to them by the tracks in order for them to deliver those services. We therefore propose that the local contracts should be backed up by a standard national Service Level Agreement (SLA), acceptance of which would also be a condition of both track and vet licensing. We consider that such a contract would provide the security sought by vets whilst acknowledging and accommodating the variations referred to above.

The proposed SLA should be formally agreed and drawn up between the SGV, in consultation with the RCVS, and the RCPA under the auspices of the GBGB Committee structure and subject to approval by the Greyhound Regulatory Board. It would be applicable to all licensed tracks and vets. We suggest that its contents, in no particular order and without seeking to be exhaustive, might include:

  • Recognition that welfare is a key responsibility of the licensed veterinary surgeon.
  • Definition of racing and welfare matters over which the vet, while conducting due consultation with track operators and other relevant officials, would have ultimate authority. Such issues could include the powers to require an unfit hound to be withdrawn; and to stop racing at a track in a clearly defined set of circumstances which, in the opinion of the vet, may give rise to a significant risk to animal health or welfare.
  • Specification of the requisite veterinary qualifications required to practise as a track vet, including: proven experience in a small animal practice dealing regularly with dogs; a stipulated minimum level of specialist greyhound-related training ensuring the ability to deal efficiently with major trauma; and a minimum number of professionally supervised attendances at the relevant greyhound track.
    In this context, it should be noted that the SGV, as the appropriate specialist division of the British Veterinary Association, and the RCVS are currently working on a specialist course which can be delivered by distance learning. A one-day attendance course could provide the requisite formal training prior to licensing by the regulator.
  • Assurance that track vets have the requisite knowledge of the Rules of Racing and receive all updates and information from the Regulator relevant to the conduct of their professional tasks.
  • Guarantee by the track operator that minimum agreed professional standards in the provision of veterinary facilities would be provided. This guarantee would cover such items (non-exhaustive) as the provision of a clean, properly maintained and suitably equipped vet's room; hot and cold running water; and adequate heat, light and ventilation.

Safeguarding of Independence and Termination

Within the context of the framework outlined above, in which such issues as remuneration and notice periods are agreed under local contract but there is a standardised, centrally agreed definition of the services and facilities to be provided by both track and vet, we consider that the issue of the independence of the vet is to a considerable extent addressed. Where there is a written standard, it becomes much easier to define whether a vet is acting within a defined authority in a given situation and whether a track promoter is or is not complying with the terms of the SLA in the quality and/or quantity of the facilities provided. Either side would have immediate recourse to the Regulator to seek redress where appropriate. However, we would recommend retention of the sanction which currently exists whereby the GBGB, with its veterinary expertise, could authorise the withholding of the veterinary support payments to any track which could not justify terminating the employment of its vet in circumstances where the vet was acting within the terms and conditions of the SLA. For example, where the vet under threat could show that he or she had properly exercised professional judgement in insisting that a dog be withdrawn or a meeting be cancelled because of a dangerous track surface, then that would not be held to be justifiable grounds for terminating that vet's employment.

As a corollary to this, we recommend that the governing body should also require and ensure that, unlike now, all the money paid as support payments to tracks to assist with the funding of veterinary services should go in full to the vet or veterinary practice concerned or, by local agreement, towards enhancing the veterinary facilities at the track.

We believe that this hybrid system of local contracts backed up by a standard national SLA and underpinned by the safeguard described above would provide the security sought by vets and the flexibility necessary to allow for regional variations of remuneration and the marked differences of work load experienced at various tracks. Furthermore, we consider that an interlocking and mutually dependent structure such as we have described will be helpful in ensuring that all parties are well equipped to recognise and respond to their responsibilities under the Animal Welfare Act in the context of greyhound racing.

Veterinary Facilities at Tracks

It appears from evidence presented to us, together with our own limited observations during visits to tracks, that the quality of track veterinary facilities varies and in some cases there appear to be grounds for improvement through further investment.

Specific evidence is provided in a recent track survey of 17 licensed tracks conducted by the SGV in June 2007 and given in evidence to us (any further survey conducted at unlicensed tracks would be of great value). Among points of interest which emerged are the following:

  • All but one respondent felt that the vet's rooms were suitable only for basic examination and minor sutures, while 2/3rds said the rooms were not suitable for major sutures.
  • Half of the vet's rooms allegedly had inadequate lighting or ventilation, most had no kennel in the room and one had no running hot or cold water.
  • One third had no stretcher available at the track and 2/3rds of the tracks did not themselves supply veterinary instruments, dressings, etc.
  • Four respondents stated that the maintenance of the track facilities was unsatisfactory.
  • An average of 30 greyhounds per year were euthanised at each track. A quarter of the tracks did not pay for euthanasia nor for the treatment of injured dogs, although at least one independent track does both.
  • Ten of the 17 tracks surveyed had no contractual arrangement with their vets (there was an average of 4 vets licensed per track).

This survey would probably be viewed differently by the track operators than by the participating vets. But it certainly suggests that the veterinary situation at some tracks could be significantly improved. We would recommend that a schedule of minimum veterinary facilities (including, but not limited to, such basic essentials as the provision of a running hot water supply) were to be agreed between the Regulator, the promoters and the SGV. Indeed, as already mentioned above, such a schedule would in any event be an integral part of the national SLA which would prescribe the minimum level of veterinary facilities to be provided and maintained by the tracks.

Nevertheless, we suggest that the sport's Regulator should inspect veterinary provision at tracks more rigorously and systematically and, where appropriate, insist on improvements before approving or renewing a track operator's licence. Under the SLA system, of course, it would be possible for the Regulator to issue an Improvement Notice to any track found in breach of the conditions in the SLA, requiring deficiencies to be corrected within a given timescale. Failure to comply with the Notice would result in suspension of the track operating licence until the deficiencies had been corrected.

Kennel Vets

The issue of kennel vets is in some ways distinct from that of the track vets surveyed above.

The kennels in which each licensed greyhound trainer keeps his or her dogs are subject to mandatory inspection. In 2006, stipendiary stewards carried out over 2000 such inspections and another 900+ were conducted by vets. But the inspecting kennel vets do not have to be licensed by the NGRC nor trained for greyhound industry or welfare purposes. They are, in general, from local veterinary practices, often with longstanding relationships with the trainers, although apparently some are retired itinerant vets. As such, they may well be perfectly satisfactory for the inspection purposes required, but this quality is not guaranteed under the present system.

Concerns were expressed to this Review that the present system of kennel inspection is far from satisfactory everywhere. The SGV claimed that there are ‘gross inconsistencies in the standards of their inspections’. Contributory causes of this failing are said to be excessive workloads of the inspecting stewards and the fact that the local vets inspections are executed by vets chosen by the trainers themselves: ‘a system which allows a conflict of interest and one which the SGV feels lack consistency, accountability and transparency’. As noted, the latter kennel vets are not specifically licensed by the NGRC, nor is any form of proven experience required for the task. The SGV concludes that it wishes to see ‘some form of regular inspection and licensing of all greyhound kennels and the greyhounds housed in them’; and that inspections should be by licensed vets accredited with a minimum of training and experience. We agree and recommend that the Greyhound Regulatory Board introduces such independent veterinary inspection.

Licensing of Veterinary Surgeons

The SGV presented to this Review strong arguments - which relate to the various veterinary issues and problems described above - for improving the procedures for licensing greyhound vets. According to this view, the current NGRC procedures for licensing vets are a virtual formality and require too little serious demonstration of specialist competence in greyhound racing. For instance, to work at licensed tracks, vets must presently become a "licensed official" possessing a valid photographic licence, but few conditions are required to be met prior to the issue of this licence. Moreover, with track vets, the application is submitted to the NGRC by the tracks themselves and the approved track licence is returned to the track management, possibly without the knowledge of the vet concerned.

This Review accepts that it is desirable to establish licensing procedures for vets which are more meaningful and substantive and less of a formality. The objective should be to have procedures and conditions which ensure that the appointed vet is someone who is competent, trained and experienced to provide the necessary level of greyhound veterinary service. It may be that all current track vets are so qualified, but it would be better if the procedures could be seen to guarantee this outcome. Indeed they would have to do so; under the national SLA, a vet would need to demonstrate an appropriate level of specialist training and experience before he/she could provide track veterinary services in compliance with the provisions of that Agreement.

The following proposals with relation to vet licensing would help to deliver that objective and should be considered on the agenda of the Greyhound Regulatory Board:

  • Licence applications and renewals must be signed by the relevant veterinary surgeon, with his RCVS registration number to ensure that the applicant has the legal right to practise. Licences should be conveyed to the relevant vet.
  • Applicants should be suitably qualified with at least 2 years veterinary experience (the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) requires 5 years experience for service in horse racing) and with proven greyhound racing experience (eg, certified attendance at a track under supervision of a licensed veterinary surgeon for a minimum of 5 meetings).
  • Appropriate training and accreditation should be provided for greyhound vets as qualifications for being licensed.
  • Only vets with such qualifications should inspect the kennels of trainers with more than 5 greyhounds.
  • Licensed vets should receive directly copies of the Rules of Racing, the Calendar, updates and details of the Area Stipendiary Stewards.
  • Licensed vets should be required to undertake appropriate continuous professional development training. In this context, we note that the NGRC has already started 1-day seminars for licensed vets; we welcome this initiative and consider that, in future, attendance at such seminars should be a CPD [4] requirement.

As suggested above, these procedures and conditions would, where relevant, be included in the SLA between the track vets and the tracks as well as being part of the conditions of track and vet licensing.

Conclusion

With the introduction of such an enhanced status and guaranteed qualifications for veterinary surgeons operating at greyhound tracks, together with them having welfare as a specified key responsibility, there should be no need to spend money, as at present, on employing amateur, part-time "welfare officers", who are said to be sometimes inadequate for the tasks involved, or may be conflicted by fulfilling a dual role in racing management.

This Review has no desire to impose on greyhound racing a superstructure of expensive regulatory bureaucracy nor of welfare supervision. The above suggestions for improving veterinary licensing, training, inspection, independence, authority and track facilities would require only relatively modest expenditure of money, time and supervision. We believe that they would provide significant benefits, both in terms of better conduct of the sport and in making it more defensible against the growing criticisms from the welfare bodies.

When considering these reforms, it might be borne in mind that veterinary supervision in British horseracing is much more elaborate and rigorous than that which we propose for greyhound racing. The regulatory arm of the BHA closely monitors veterinary provision at British racecourses. The BHA itself directly employs, on a regional basis, a number of specifically qualified full-time vets who attend race meetings on a daily basis (we do not propose anything like that). In addition, each racecourse employs a minimum of 2 vets - 3 for National Hunt racing - who must hold the minimum veterinary qualifications and experience laid down by the Regulator.

We do not wish or propose to over-play the analogy between these two sports which are different in many ways, especially in terms of scale and financial support. Greyhound racing does not need and could not afford veterinary provision on the scale provided in horseracing. But the example of having a properly qualified veterinary service throughout the sport, which has appropriate independence from the commercial promoter and which operates under the oversight of the Regulator, is one which greyhound racing must, we believe, pursue, albeit commensurate with its more limited financial resource.

This improvement of veterinary provision along the lines proposed should be a priority item on the agenda of the GBGB in general and the Greyhound Regulatory Board in particular.

[4] Continuing Professional Development