Veterinary schools, colleges cited for noncompliance with Animal Welfare Act

Most violations are of a clerical nature, not inadequate care
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Nearly every U.S. veterinary school and college was cited by the Department of Agriculture in 2003 for failing to fully comply with the federal Animal Welfare Act.

Inspection reports show the most common citation was for inadequate documentation indicating that alternatives to painful or distressing procedures had been considered or for failing to provide a detailed description of methods and sources by which such a determination was made.

Many citations were issued for failing to ensure that activities involving animals were not needlessly duplicative and to justify the number or species of animals used. Citations were issued also for a lack of personnel training and identification of animals; use of animals in multiple, painful procedures; and missing information on anesthesia and methods used to euthanatize animals. A painful procedure is defined as "any procedure that would reasonably be expected to cause more than slight or momentary pain or distress in a human being to which that procedure was applied, that is, pain in excess of that caused by injections or other minor procedures."

Those schools and colleges cited by the USDA were ordered to correct the violations within a designated time.

As Dr. Lawrence Heider points out, nearly all of the violations pertain to clerical errors, rather than causing unnecessary harm to animals. Dr. Heider is executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. He believes the USDA enforcement is being presented in such a way as to portray the veterinary schools and colleges as disregarding animal welfare—a charge Dr. Heider adamantly refutes.

"They would have us think that our colleges are abusing animals. Such is not the case," Dr. Heider said.

The citations follow a petition filed by the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights with the USDA in July 2002. In the document, five veterinary students joined the Davis, Calif.-based animal rights association in its allegation that most U.S. veterinary education institutions were violating the Animal Welfare Act.

AVAR based its contention on two surveys. The first, to which 22 veterinary institutions responded, found 36,366 procedures using animals were conducted and 9,653 animals died or were euthanatized during the 1998-1999 school year. The other survey examined whether veterinary students were offered alternatives to performing invasive procedures.

The results, according to AVAR, indicate a lack of compliance among U.S. veterinary institutions. "We found there was just a huge discrepancy between animal use and the use of alternatives at various schools," explained Teri A. Barnato, AVAR national director.

AVAR and the students petitioned the USDA to enforce the act and regulations by preventing frequent violations of the alternatives procedures provisions by veterinary schools and colleges. In addition, petitioners requested that the USDA conduct rule making to amend its regulations to clarify the review of the alternatives requirement.

AVAR representatives made their case to Dr. Chester A. Gipson, associate deputy administrator of Animal Care, the division within the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service that enforces the Animal Welfare Act, during a meeting in December 2002.

Barnato recalled that Dr. Gipson acknowledged there were some problems of noncompliance and that Animal Care inspectors hadn't been enforcing certain provisions of the act. Dr. Gipson could not be reached for comment.

APHIS inspection reports for 2003 show 26 veterinary schools and colleges were cited for various violations. A preponderance of the violations pertained to the alternatives to painful or distressing procedures section of the Animal Welfare Act. (Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine welcomed its charter class in August that year and was not inspected.)

A 1985 amendment to the act requires the principal investigator at veterinary institutions and other regulated entities to decrease animal suffering—when possible—by using alternatives to procedures "that may cause more than momentary or slight pain or distress to animals." When alternatives aren't an option, a detailed narrative of how that determination was made must be provided.