Veterinary academe evaluates animal use in education

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Veterinary academe and members of the animal protection community, among other attendees, evaluated the use of animals in veterinary education at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges' Educational Symposium, March 9-10. Held in Washington, D.C., the symposium offered attendees the chance to discuss which regulatory and ethical issues impact the use of animals in education, and what alternative methods exist.

While faculty at veterinary schools and colleges use animals to teach students, they recognize they walk a fine line between caring for animals and using them inappropriately, said program chair Dr. James P. Thompson during his opening remarks.

During a panel at the symposium, Dr. Robert A. Willems, a regional animal care specialist with the Department of Agriculture, discussed the federal Animal Welfare Act, regulatory issues, and emerging ethical concerns over the use of animals in education.

Dr. Willems is with the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's Animal Care division, which enforces the AWA. Established in 1966, the AWA requires minimal standards of care and treatment for most warm-blooded animals bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially, or exhibited to the public.

About 8,000 animals were acquired for use in education by 25 U.S. veterinary schools or colleges during the 2004 academic year, Dr. Willems reported. About 40 percent were farm animals and 32 percent were dogs, while roughly 2 percent were cats.

After looking at the numbers, Dr. Willems delved into some of the regulatory issues associated with the use of these animals. He presented attendees with a list of concerns—related to compliance with the AWA—that were reported by inspectors who visit the veterinary schools and colleges on a regular basis. He mentioned that some of the concerns reported were not actual noncompliance situations, but were situations that may lead to noncompliance.

Inadequate funding is one situation at a veterinary school or college that could cause compliance problems, because it leads to inadequate animal facility maintenance, Dr. Willems said. Other potential problems are improper training of animal care personnel and inadequate authority for responsible persons, such as the attending veterinarian, regarding interdepartmental issues. Course instructors changing teaching protocols involving animal use without approval of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee could also result in noncompliance.

While ensuring compliance with the AWA, veterinary schools and colleges are also dealing with an increase in ethical concerns about the overall use of animals. For example, pain management in animals used for education has received heightened attention in recent years, Dr. Willems said. Even though veterinary schools and colleges might incorporate pain management practices and teach pain management to students, he proposed that veterinary academe set a standard.

"I ask this because our own regulations require veterinary care to meet currently acceptable standards in the veterinary community," he said. "It's something that has the potential for being problematic, especially at schools where pain management is minimal."

Dr. Willems noted that painful procedures, such as castration, dehorning, and tail docking, are sometimes performed without the benefit of anesthesia or analgesia even though pain relief is available. "There has to be some justification for doing this," he said.

Overall, Dr. Willems encouraged members of veterinary academe to reflect on what they teach students about performing these procedures, especially in terms of ethics. He referred to the quote "If you don't teach it, of course they won't do it."

During one keynote presentation, Paul F. Waldau, PhD, discussed the ethical issues impacting the use of alternative methods to the use of animals in education. Dr. Waldau is the director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

Most studies have proved that alternative methods of instruction are not substantially different from or superior to the conventional methods, Dr. Waldau said. Despite these studies, he said, there are still debates over the use of alternative methods.

Some people feel that alternative methods are not essential in veterinary education, he said, and some have values-based, philosophic differences about what constitutes an appropriate use of animals. A fear that implementing one form of alternatives in education may suggest that other uses of animals are inappropriate can also be a concern.

One element of veterinary education is to be ethically concerned, and another element is to explore the "awesome ability of science," Dr. Waldau said. "I think these commitments have to go hand-in-hand."

Dr. Waldau said some educators might react to alternative methods by retorting, "We weren't educated that way, and we're fine" or "It's not the way things have been done in the past." However, the economic benefits of using alternative methods alone suggest that educators should pay attention to the issue, he said, even if the ethical issues are not taken into consideration. Alternative methods lead to a reduction of faculty time and university monies used to purchase and maintain animals. He said another advantage is the superior ability of students to repeat procedures on models until skills are mastered.

After learning about regulatory and ethical issues, attendees focused on specific alternative methods. At the model demonstration session, attendees had access to dog mannequins, a hollow-organ surgical simulator, a skin and suture pattern simulator, and other tools for use in veterinary education. During one panel, Sarah Baillie, BVSc, of the University of Glasgow presented a bovine rectal palpation simulator. The simulator allows students to palpate computer-generated virtual models of the bovine reproductive tract while interacting with a haptic device. Dr. Shauna Cantwell of the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine talked about a human simulator used as a teaching tool for veterinary students in an anesthesia training program at the college.

Other symposium highlights included a European perspective on animal use in education, a panel on the best ways for veterinary students to learn clinical procedures, and an Animal Welfare Act model curriculum.

Look for a sequence of papers from the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges' Educational Symposium to be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Veterinary Medical Education. This will be the second set of papers in JVME on the use of animals in veterinary education. The first set of papers was published in the winter 2005 edition of JVME, which can be accessed online at