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Ongoing Projects

PhD-project of Svenja Springer

Due to an increasing number of diagnostic and therapeutic options, practical veterinarians are more often challenged to reflect on whether all available therapeutic possibilities should be exhausted. Artificial hip joints, dialysis, cardiac pacemaker, state-of-the-art imaging techniques and the flourishing branch of oncology are standards in today’s veterinary medicine. Veterinarian´s and owner´s responsibilities extend to new and far reaching issues that cannot be answered by referring to medical reasons alone: is there a moral responsibility to use high-tech devices to diagnose a disease as early, as comprehensively and as profoundly as possible? Is there a moral obligation to use high tech in veterinary practice even when owners’ financial possibilities are exhausted? In brief, high tech has changed and will continue change the scope of clinical and ethical decision-making processes in veterinary practice.

Against this background the project starts from the assumption that technological innovations influence veterinarians’ professional responsibilities and have normative implications on crucial medical concepts such as “diagnosis”, “therapy” and “prognosis”. This will be examined in the field of oncology. Uncertainties and insecurities, which are triggered by high tech in oncology, will allow for the explication of crucial moral dimensions of the veterinary profession. Therewith, this interdisciplinary project will investigate the moral cornerstones of veterinary medicine and explicate its moral infrastructure, what has been coined the Internal Morality of Veterinary Medicine (IMVM).

The focus of the project lies on a systematic approach that comprises a theoretical and an empirical part. We aim at gaining empirical data regarding veterinarians’ uncertainties and strategies when using high tech in clinical practice. The first step (theoretical part) of the project will be to elaborate key aspects of veterinary practice in order to formulate case vignettes (real life scenarios) for a subsequent focus group study. Second, the focus group study will be carried out in order to develop hypotheses for a questionnaire-based survey (empirical part). Consequently, a survey will be conducted among Austrian practicing veterinarians. The gained empirical data will provide insights into major aspects in the veterinary profession and extend our knowledge of the IMVM. Therefore, this interdisciplinary research project, which comprises veterinary medical aspects, veterinary medical ethics and empirical social science, will contribute to the emerging field of veterinary ethics and its institutionalisation.

In terms of potential consequences, this project will contribute to a better and empirically informed understanding of the present conflicts and ethical dilemmas veterinarians’ are faced with. Further, there is a high probability that the results will not only be of interest for the research community but also for teaching programs in veterinary medicine.

project term: July 2017 - May 2020

project number: P 29974

Funded by FWF

Funded by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs, Health and Consumer Protection 

Ethics for Veterinary Medicine – An Online Course

Veterinarians and veterinary officers can be considered as epitomes of ethically challenging professions. They regularly have to deal with decisions that incorporate moral aspects. One need only think of the euthanasia of domestic animals, the monitoring of animal welfare of farm animals from stable to slaughter or the culling of livestock when faced with an animal disease. Against this background, the e-learning course „VEthics E-Portfolio – Ethics for Veterinary Medicine“ offers an introduction to ethical reflection in the context of Veterinary medicine.

Topics of the online course and duration

The online course consists of 13 so-called sessions, which can be worked on independently (i.e. flexible in time and place). Each session takes about 30 to 45 minutes. The following topics are covered:

Session 1: Technical Introduction

Session 2: Variety of Roles – what does it mean to be professional?

Session 3: Ethics and Morality – an introduction

Session 4: Ethical Perspectives. Consequentialism, deontological ethics, and virtue ethics

Session 5: Animal Husbandry and Society – how can we better understand conflicts?

Session 6: Ethical Matrix – a tool for working through ethical controversies

Session 7: Introduction to Animal Ethics – from Kant to Bentham

Session 8: Classic works on Animal Ethics – Peter Singer and Tom Regan

Session 9: Euthanasia – between the prevention of suffering and the protection of life

Session 10: Virtues and Skills – how the profession has changed through the ages

Session 11: Slaughter – contemplation of a practice

Session 12: Animal Diseases – how to deal with extraordinary situations

Session 13: Veterinary Ethics – an overview

Technology and didactics

The course is embedded in the e-learning platform „Vetucation®“ of the Vetmeduni Vienna. Session 1 provides a detailed didactic as well as technical introduction. In short, the course consists of two key elements: (1) the „presentations“ convey the content of a session, (2) in the „portfolios“ the participants complete independent work tasks. In addition, the portfolios serve as a script as well as a proof of successful completion of a session.

Target groups of the online course

The course is intended for (1) veterinary officers, (2) veterinarians and (3) students of veterinary medicine.


The course is available in German and English.

Are you interested in the online course?

The online course „VEthics E-Portfolio“ is used in the Austrian training program for veterinary officers as as well as at the Vetmeduni Vienna. However, also „external“ institutions – such as ministries in Germany or the FAO – already use the course as a crucial training offering. Are you interested? Then please contact us. (Contact information: see below).

What is „Ethics“ in this context?

The course does not „preach“ what is morally right. It therefore does not presume to be able to give unambiguous answers to complex ethical problems in veterinary medicine; rather, it aims to help analyze difficult situations from different ethical perspectives, to clarify key concepts (such as „professionalism “or „moral status“ of animals), to structure controversies surrounding the veterinary profession, and in this way to promote independent ethical reflection.

About the development of the course

The development of the online course was funded by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Health and Consumer Protection. The course was developed at the Messerli Research Institute, Department of Ethics of Human-Animal Relationships at the Vetmeduni Vienna.


If you want to contact us, please write to the following address: christian.duernberger (at-sign)

Postdoc project Martin Huth

Martin Huth works on a phenomenological theory of the human-animal relationship that is oriented towards the lifeworld meanings. The theory wants to describe the fact that we have always been living with animals and that this fact is embedded in history and culture. Against the background of certain standards animals concern us, we face animals every day. This requires responsibility. It is not enough to simply reconstruct or apply existing manners and standards. In the individual encounter a demand becomes manifest which we cannot not answer. Therefore - independent of specific attributions - we are called upon to assume responsibility which we can only assume within a variable sociocultural context.

FWF Stand-alone project, 2018 ongoing

PI: Dr. Judith Benz-Schwarzburg

Postdoc: Dr. Susana Monsó

PhD student: Birte Wrage, MA

project number: P 31466

Few philosophical ideas have been as resistant to a paradigm shift as the assumption of human superiority over other animals. Human uniqueness has been linked to a range of complex social and cognitive capacities, e.g. the capacity to reason, to use language or culture, or to have consciousness. Most prominently, humans understand themselves as the pinnacle of creation because of their moral capacities: humans can cooperate with others, console them and help them, show empathy and care, understand fairness and react negatively to inequity. But what if other animals can do so as well?

During the past few decades, empirical research in comparative cognition has revealed astonishing abilities in animals. Biologists and philosophers are currently engaged in a vivid debate on how to interpret these findings. Our project contributes to this endeavor by addressing two main questions: What does morality in animals mean? And why does morality in animals matter?

Philosopher Mark Rowlands claims that animals are moral subjects because they can be motivated by moral emotions. However, much conceptual work still needs to be done in order to determine whether animals can indeed behave morally. Departing from Rowlands’ theory, we firstly aim to specify the character and cognitive requirements of moral emotions in animals. Whereas the current debate mostly concentrates on empathy as a moral emotion and on morally good behavior, we will engage in an analysis of other moral emotions, such as patience, compassion, guilt, and grief and, furthermore, consider negative moral emotions, such as cruelty, jealousy, schadenfreude, and callousness. Secondly, we will ask whether the attribution of morality to animals comes with ethical implications – a dimension that scholars in the debate have widely neglected. Our project aims to counter this shortcoming by analyzing the consequences of being a moral subject from the perspective of three important theories in animal ethics: the capabilities approach, the integrity approach, and the rights approach. This will elucidate the entitlements animals could have as moral subjects.

We want our theoretical discussions to move beyond the proverbial armchair. Therefore, we will apply an interdisciplinary and empirically-informed methodology. Ultimately, our theoretical analysis will provide us with a conceptual toolkit to identify and discuss practical cases where humans might interfere with the moral abilities of animals. It is for example impossible for a social animal to console a conspecific in distress if husbandry conditions on farms and in labs separate individuals from each other. Also, some animal experiments aim at reducing the animals’ moral abilities (like their empathic abilities) by brain surgery or extreme forms of conditioning. Examples like these gain an additional ethical dimension if the animals affected by these practices are moral subjects.

Funded by FWF


FWF Lise Meitner project, 2019 ongoing

PI: Susana Monsó

Project number: M2518-G32

Humans have long been understood as the only creatures who have a concept of death. Animals have historically been portrayed as creatures who cannot understand what happens to another being when she dies, and who have absolutely no clue about their own mortality. Within the field of animal ethics, animals’ purported lack of a concept of death has been used by many authors to argue that killing an animal poses no ethical problem, so long as it is done in a quick and painless manner. In recent years, however, scientists have begun to gather evidence that suggests that this view of animals may be mistaken. Chimpanzees have been seen apparently testing for signs of life and offering nurturance to dead bodies of other chimpanzees. Crows have been found to gather around their deceased to learn about the circumstances of their death and potential sources of danger. Mothers from a wide range of species have been witnessed carrying the bodies of their dead infants for long periods of time. Does this all mean that these animals can understand death? Or are these behaviours the result of instincts, hormones gone awry, or simple confusion? This project, entitled “Animals and the Concept of Death”, aims to give an answer to these questions by engaging in the first in-depth philosophical exploration of animals’ understanding of death. The project will consist of two main tasks. The first task is to determine exactly what it means for an animal to possess a concept of death. Using the literature on concept possession in animals from the field of philosophy of animal minds, as well as the research on children’s understanding of death from the discipline of developmental psychology, this first task will result in a clear picture of the conditions that have to be met for an animal to be credited with possessing a concept of death. The second task will then be to look at the evidence that scientists have gathered so far, in order to see whether any of it actually supports the idea that animals have a concept of death.

Funded by FWF


The working group was established in 2015 with the aim of reflecting on and working on ethical questions in an interdisciplinary manner that arise in the context of the work at the University Clinic for Equine Medicine. Currently, the working group is dealing with the question of the ethical justification of killing and the attitudes of veterinarians to the euthanasia of horses.

An interdisciplinary diploma thesis is now underway, supervised by Prof. Dr. Florien Jenner and Prof. Dr. Herwig Grimm. With the help of a questionnaire, views and attitudes of equine practitioners on the topic of " killing horses" are being surveyed. The survey focuses on medical questions about euthanasia of horses, the formative attitudes of veterinarians, possible conflicts, strategies for coping with them as well as the role of female veterinarians within this context. This study is based on a survey on "Euthanasia in small animal medicine" (Hartnack, S; Springer, S; Pittavino, M; Grimm, H (2016): Attitudes of Austrian veterinarians towards euthanasia in small animal practice: impacts of age and gender on views on euthanasia. BMC Vet Res. 2016; 12(1):26), so that a comparison of both data sets to investigate possible differences between small animal medicine and equine medicine can be made.

Members: Ulrike Auer; Sonja Berger; Univ.-Prof. Dr. Herwig Grimm; Rhea Haralambus; Univ.-Prof. Florien Jenner; Gabriel Königsberger; Iris Ribitsch; Svenja Springer; Karsten Velde

Translated with (free version)

The interdisciplinary research platform Ethics in Equine Medicine works on ethically relevant veterinary aspects of the human-horse relationship in an intensive collaboration and exchange between Gut Aiderbichl, an animal sanctuary with estates in multiple European countries, and the Vetmeduni Vienna. The focus is on decisions about therapies, decision-making processes and relevant decision-making criteria with regards to geriatric and/or chronically diseased horses.

The interdisciplinary research platform is associated with the Working GroupEthics in Equine Medicine, a collaboration between the Unit of Ethics and Human-Animal Studies at the Messerli Research Institute and the University Equine Hospital.

The first project of the research platform, Decisions about therapies: Criteria and models of decision-making, consists of two PhD projects, one in the Unit of Ethics and Human-Animal Studies at the Messerli Research Institute and one in the University Equine Hospital.

Complex decisions about therapies and euthanasia for chronically diseased and/or geriatric horses provide the background of the two PhD projects. Often, quality of life is referenced as an important criterion for these decisions. However, to date there is no widely accepted definition of equine quality of life, nor a validated equine quality of life assessment tool available that captures all relevant aspects of chronically diseased and/or geriatric horses. This is what the two projects focus on. The ethics PhD Project (Equine Quality of Life: Ethics of end-of-life decisions in geriatric and/or chronically diseased horses) theoretically and empirically investigates the concept of equine quality of life for geriatric and/or chronically diseased horses. Furthermore, the project aims to support complex decision-making processes regarding veterinary interventions such as therapies and euthanasia. The veterinary PhD project (Development and validation of indicators of Quality of Life in geriatric and/or chronically diseased horses) is concerned with the practical aspects of developing and validating indicators of quality of life for geriatric and/or chronically diseased horses. With this project we aim at providing support in responsible decision making in an increasingly important area of human-horse relationship.


PI: Prof. Dr. Herwig Grimm (Unit of Ethics and Human-Animal Studies, Messerli Research Institute)

PI: Prof in Dr in Florien Jenner Dipl.ACVS Dipl.ECVS (Clinical Unit of Equine Surgery, University Equine Hospital, Vetmeduni Vienna)

Univ.-Prof in Dr in Jessica Cavalleri Dipl.ECEIM (Clinical Unit of Internal Medicine Horses, University Equine Hospital, Vetmeduni Vienna)

PD in Dr in Ulrike Auer (Clinical Unit of Anaesthesiology and Perioperative Intensive-Care Medicine, Vetmeduni Vienna)

PhD student: Mariessa Long, MSc (Unit of Ethics and Human-Animal Studies, Messerli Research Institute)

PhD student: Mag a Zsófia Kelemen (Clinical Unit of Equine Surgery, Vetmeduni Vienna)