Vet On Set: Dedicated to Animal Welfare

Photo shoots, short films or feature films, and TV commercials often require animals on set. But what measures are taken to ensure the physical and mental well-being of these unique actors?

Dr. Alison Foucault, a veterinarian specialising in animal welfare on film sets in the UK, provides us with some answers!

Vet On Set: A Role Dedicated to Animal Welfare

As Dr. Foucault explains, the role of a veterinarian on set is to ensure the physical and mental well-being of the animals. The unusual environment of film and photo shoots can cause stress, with bright lights and stark light/dark contrasts which can be intimidating or bothersome to animals less accustomed to such conditions. Depending on the brief, the animal might need to jump, swim, remain perfectly still, or even roll in the mud.

Photo campaign for GUCCI

"In these unique and potentially overwhelming environments, the veterinarian's role is to ensure that the demands on the animal are reasonable. We make sure the animal is healthy not only during filming but also for transportation to the set. We also ensure that the working hours are not too long.

Generally, these small (or large!) actors come with their trainers, who know their animals and their limits very well. The vet then becomes more of an observer, an extra pair of hands, or as backup to handlers’ welfare decisions should the need arise."

At the veterinarian's request, filming can be paused to allow the animal to rest or just take a break. The production team next to always follows the veterinarian's advice for the well-being of the animals when it comes to this

The veterinarian also holds a second level of responsibility on set: ensuring that the footage captured is responsible and ethical. Indeed, the vet must help ensure that the videos and photos taken do not promote or vehicle potentially unhelpful representations of animals to the general public.

“As an example, I recently encountered a situation on a set in the UK where a hamster was proposed to be filmed in an exercise ball. I informed production that in our country (the UK), the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) does not recommend the use of exercise balls for hamsters, and that they should make their client aware.

Part of my role is therefore to help make clients aware of potential issues and of existing guidance around animal welfare. The media have influence, and need to be mindful of portraying or normalising situations, or arguably even certain breeds in a way that could be potentially problematic or detrimental to animal health in the perception of the public.”

Fur, feathers, or scales

In the UK, not all film productions involving animals require the presence of a veterinarian. Only commercialsare subject to this requirement by the television advertising regulatory body. TV series, films, and videos for social media are legally exempt.

In such cases, it is solely the owner or the handler’s responsibility to ensure the well-being of the animal during filming. This situation can sometimes place the animal at the center of a conflict of interest.

The most commonly featured animals in advertising shoots are:

1/ Dogs (crédit photo Poldo x Moncler)
2/ Cats (crédit photo Cheshire & Wain)
3/ Rodents, rabbits & exotic pets (Photo: Tesco x Tooth n Claw)
4/ Equines
5/ Farm animals

Reptiles, insects, and fish, on the other hand, rank much lower in how commonly they are used as actors.

The typical day of a vet on set

"Although no two days are alike in my profession, there are certain fairly common patterns," shares Alison.

"Animals are commonly called around 9 a.m. This allows the film crew to ensure everything is set up to welcome the animal actors in optimal conditions. Lights, cameras, sound, makeup, and so on are usually all ready before their arrival.

For my part, I arrive around 8 a.m., allowing time for breakfast before getting started! But more importantly, it gives me time to familiarize myself with the environment and discuss any potential issues with the production team.

What actions briefs are expected? What animal behaviors do they wish to capture on camera?

When the animal handler is an experienced professional, I can remain in the background and observe things unfolding behind the scenes.

There are times when animals are sent by pet casting agencies. In these cases, it can be the owners, rather than professional trainers, who arrive on set with the animal. In such situations, things can sometimes be more complicated, and that's where my presence becomes much more important.

The general public isn't always familiar with the world of filming. People may not know what to do, or may lack the necessary equipment for their dog or cat, for example. In such cases, in addition to anticipating potential veterinary issues, I also try to help guide the owners.

Filming a scene typically takes between 5 and 30 minutes, repeated as necessary depending on the action, and always within tolerable limits for the animal.

The waiting times are significant in this line of work, much more so than the actual filming work. Therefore, I ensure that the animal waits in good conditions, without experiencing stress. This can sometimes last for hours, so they must be relaxed and comfortable.

Generally, in most cases, animals have their own designated area (such as a van) where they can rest, play, and go for walks.

I systematically document my clinical examination on paper, including additional information such as place of origin, duration of transport, etc. I then write a report certifying that the animal has been treated properly and detailing what was asked of them.

The document is then sent to the production team at the end of filming. My job is then done!"

Creative Perfection: When the Vet Steps In

There are situations where stepping in and pausing a shoot becomes necessary for the well-being of an animal: excessively long working hours, far-fetched scenarios, action briefs with potential danger... Dr. Foucault explains why filming sometimes gets cut short.

"There are cases where I have to intervene either to ask the creative team to modify the action brief, or more rarely to pause shooting altogether. For instance, last month, I was working on a project where the creative team wanted to film a large Labrador standing still on a narrow table dressed with glasses, cutlery and plates. The table seemed quite unsuitable for the dog; it was a bit wobbly, a bit too narrow, and there was a high likelihood that the dog wouldn't feel comfortable on such a precarious surface, potentially causing him to jump off hastily and knock over the glassware and porcelain in the process.

In such situations, my communication skills are put to the test to convey to the team that alternatives must be found (such as using adhesive to secure the glassware, placing non-slip mats, providing a step-up platform, etc).

Uncommonly, there are non-negotiable situations where filming has to be immediately interrupted. I recall an incident where two owners' dogs were selected to film a scene where they were supposed to open toy boxes together. The problem arose because, to motivate the dogs, food was hidden inside the boxes. I flagged the idea as problematic from the get-go as there were too many factors that could lead to a fight: dogs from different households, the presence of food, owners as handlers rather than experienced professional trainers... Despite my warning, owners gave the go-ahead and the production team still decided to proceed with caution. The dogs were fine for the first few seconds but as expected, one of the dogs then curled a lip and started to grumble and I immediately halted the shoot."

Reading the body language of the animals is crucial in assessing whether they are happy and comfortable or not.. Ears pinned back, panting, yawning — these are all signs of emerging discomfort that would prompt the veterinarian to intervene. Interruptions by the vet are generally very well received by the film crew, as most productions are very caring of animals, and the outcome on camera is rarely successful in situations where the animal is becoming unhappy.

Another common scenario for interruption, as reported by Dr. Foucault, is when the production team requests repeated takes in search of the perfect one. The handler and the veterinarian often have to step in to put boundaries around these repetitions, which over time test the patience of even the most seasoned animal actors.

"In these cases, especially if the handler feels like they need backup, I have to intervene. For some directors, depending on their creative style and their experience working with animals (or lack thereof!), perfection does exist. My perspective, and that of most handlers, on the other hand, is pragmatic! So we have to sometimes provide guidance regarding basics of animal behavior, make the crew aware of a specific animal’s limits, of what could harm or scare them, and find creative compromises that can still align with the aesthetic requirements of the shoot and the client’s expectations."

Vets on Standby offers specialised veterinary services for film, TV, commercials, photo shoots, and music videos. The team is based in London but works all over the UK.

They collaborate with productions big and small, and household names such as Netflix and the BBC, to ensure animal welfare and help prevent and resolve unforeseen situations on set.

For more information, visit their website:


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