Animal planet: What climate change means for veterinary patient health

Warming temperatures and other environmental changes directly impact pets as well as wildlife and livestock. Veterinarians play a key role in creating a more sustainable future—if they are equipped and empowered appropriately.

By Bowman Report staff following interview with Colleen Duncan, BScH, DVM, MSc, PhD, DACVP, DACVPM


Colleen Duncan, BScH, DVM, MSc, PhD, DACVP, DACVPM, is a professor at Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and co-author of the book Climate Change and Animal Health.


As a veterinarian specialized in pathology and preventive medicine, it’s impossible for me not to draw connections between the state of the environment and diseases of animals. Over the course of my career I’ve been fortunate to work with everything from pets to livestock and wild animals; I’ve seen the effects of human activity on nonhuman residents of the planet firsthand.

Increasing temperatures. Air pollution. Habitat loss. Frequent disasters. All of these and more are harming the animals we as veterinarians have dedicated our careers to protecting.

After one particularly sobering project in Canada several years ago, I reached a turning point. I was tired of studying the effects of environmentally mediated diseases and wanted to work on protecting animals from these problems in the first place. This paradigm shift sent me down a new path—one focused on action and results. I did less work with wild animals and began interacting more regularly with students and domestic animal veterinarians, the majority of our professional cohort and a group of people who are well-positioned step up efforts around environmental sustainability.

After all, humans, animals and the environment are all inherently interconnected, and veterinarians therefore play a key role in in keeping everyone healthy. Let’s take a closer look.

The connection: Climate change is a veterinary health issue.

It is undeniable that climate change is an animal health issue. Research that transcends species—humans and animals—has identified the following exposure pathways through which climate change causes disease:

Increasing temperatures. Heat is often recognized as a “silent killer” as even small changes in body temperature can exacerbate underlying conditions like lung or heart disease. We also have certain species and breeds are more susceptible to heat-related problems than others—the brachycephalic or flat-faced dogs who already have compromised respiratory systems, and therefore difficulty cooling themselves, are overrepresented in veterinary hospitals during heatwaves.  

Air pollution. With the Canadian wildfires that occurred in summer 2023, all North America realized that you don’t need a fire in your own backyard to experience respiratory effects caused by smoke. Like people, animals experience a wide range of symptoms during these pollution events. Some species, like horses and cats, already struggle with asthma, which can be triggered by atmospheric pollution—something we can prevent.

Vector-borne disease. As temperatures warm, ticks and other disease vectors enlarge their territory and transmit pathogens to an ever-increasing population of wildlife, livestock, pets and people. We’re also seeing diseases that used to be seasonal occurring 12 months a year.  We have preventive medications for some but not all of these pathogens. 

Extreme weather events. Fires, floods and storms make headlines, and they’re commonly recognized as being among the more dramatic effects of climate change. Whether you live in an area where wildfires are common, flooding is prevalent or sea levels are changing, natural disasters are placing ever more demands on social resources, including those dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating animals.

Water: quantity and quality. Climate change affects infectious diseases and contaminants persisting within water ultimately impacting water quality overall. This is an area where I think veterinarians could really step up because, unlike our human health colleagues, we are charged with protecting the health of species who live in aquatic ecosystems and we’ve already seen disastrous effects of ocean warming and acidification for animals like sea turtles and coral.

Food. Food supply and safety of the food system are both impacted by environmental changes. There are more pathogens and pests threatening our food supply than there used to be, coupled with challenges producing enough food under warmer, and often dryer, conditions.   

Animal welfare. According to the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare, animals should be free from hunger and thirst; discomfort; pain, injury and disease; and fear and distress. They should also be free to exhibit their natural behavior. Climate change and other environmental harms threaten all of these freedoms.

Taken together, these issues provide clear evidence that the health of both wildlife and veterinary patients is affected by harmful changes to the environment.

The call: Veterinarians are uniquely poised to help.

The veterinary profession is made up of people of all beliefs and backgrounds, but the one thing we all hold dear is our passion for animals. In fact, we’ve taken an oath to safeguard animal health. So in light of the connections between the state of the environment and the health of our patients, a commitment to animal health should be a commitment to global sustainability.

What’s more, animal health professionals have always been strategic, “the MacGyvers of medicine.” Never been done in a tortoise? No worries—a veterinarian will figure out some creative solution and send that patient on its way healthy and happy. A creative, outside-the-box mentality is hardwired in animal health careers—not just in veterinarians but in technicians and other team members who figure out ingenious ways to simply get it done. This veterinary DNA means we have the will and the skill to solve environmental problems that impact our patients. I have faith in us.

Finally, disease prevention is an important part of the sustainability solution. It’s easy to forget the value of great preventive care and our involvement in community projects. For example, when we spay and neuter community cats, those cats eat fewer birds, and this helps maintain biodiversity. Veterinarians also connect with their clients in ways no other professional does. There is a very real emotional bond people have to animals and through animals, and veterinarians are trusted messengers of animal health.

As a result, veterinarians have the opportunity to educate people that environmental issues are animal health issues and vice versa. This enables us to avoid political stigma and “whose side are you on” bickering. Everybody agrees that we need to protect kids from environmentally induced asthma, so it’s not a big shift to start the conversation about what air pollution means for their competition horse—right? We’re all on the same page here. That simple message about animal health may be the most meaningful impact a veterinarian can make.

The challenge: We need to address the emotional toll.

From my perspective, a major challenge surrounding the profession’s engagement on the topic of sustainability is not apathy but caring too much. Many veterinarians tell me their biggest concern about climate change is the emotional toll it takes on the people who love and care for animals. For example, in Colorado where I live, wildfires recently killed more than a thousand pets—the blaze hit homes midday, when people were at work and couldn’t get their pets to safety. The devastation of the veterinary professionals involved in that aftermath was immense. Any animal caregiver who’s been involved in a disaster situation knows what that feels like.

In short, feeling like you can’t help is stressful. Even when we’re not having disasters in our own backyards, climate change on a global level consists of wicked problems without simple solutions. It’s easy to become overwhelmed, burn out and question whether what we’re doing is making a difference.

In short, feeling like you can’t help is stressful. Even when we’re not having disasters in our own backyards, climate change on a global level consists of wicked problems without simple solutions.

On top of this, veterinarians and their teams have been swamped for years. Hospital staffs are often burning the candle at both ends, and many end up walking away from the profession they love. Pile environmental problems on top of that, and the risk for overwhelm only increases. We can’t afford to lose people that way—either from the profession or from efforts to heal the planet. So it’s important for researchers and advocates (like me) to meet veterinarians where they’re at and be strategic.

The good news is we’re figuring out numerous ways to make it easier for the profession to make a meaningful impact in their own practices and communities.

The good news is we’re figuring out numerous ways to make it easier for the profession to make a meaningful impact in their own practices and communities.

I was happy to see that a number of discussions on sustainability took place during the 2023 AVMA Convention (here’s an overview). I’m also excited about the launch of the new Veterinary Sustainability Alliance, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that seeks to infuse sustainability into the veterinary profession. This group is dedicated to sharing resources and ideas; it also has a Facebook group.

Bottom line, there are countless ways to help, and they don’t have to be extreme. I encourage my veterinary colleagues to start with easy changes and build from there. A lot of great people are thinking about these issues, and we need all the help we can get. Together we can work for the things that matter: clean air for dogs and cats to breathe, healthy ecosystems for animals to inhabit, and a better situation for our grandchildren’s generation—and the animals they’ll share life with.

- Bowman Report

A previous comment has been removed as it violates our safe community standards*

- Dr. Diccon Westworth

I would like to call on the editors of this publication to insist on civility of discourse by those providing commentary- re. Dr. Coldiron’s comment above. There is no excuse for such an aggressive and unprofessional retort – no matter one’s beliefs or the vehemence of one’s feelings. Freedom of speech during public professional parley should refrain from obscenities.

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