Veterinary faculty agree that students should have an awareness of the history and basic concepts of animal welfare and knowledge of related current events if they are to be an integral part of the animal welfare discussion after graduation. What educators continue to wrestle with is precisely what students should know before graduating and how animal welfare should be incorporated into the veterinary curriculum.
Dr. David C.J. Main is the British VMA Animal Welfare Foundation lecturer in animal welfare at the University of Bristol. Speaking at the Joint International Educational Symposium on Animal Welfare, he said animal welfare education centers on three areas: science, ethics, and private and public standards. Specifically, students should consider what humans' impact is on animals and how animals should be treated.
Dr. Main said a shift has occurred from simply considering the physical needs of animals to also considering the mental state and now, the natural state of the animals. Put in another way, animal welfare education, at least in the United Kingdom, has evolved from focusing on avoidance of harm to promotion of a "good life."
Above all, Dr. Main said, new graduates should be able to engage in conversations on a variety of animal welfare topics. Examples he gave were discussions of various husbandry systems, informed clinical decisions, basic welfare science, clinical welfare assessment, management of ethical dilemmas, and current standards and legislation.
Animal welfare issues pose dilemmas and call for judgments, he said, "and sometimes there isn't a right or wrong answer, but as long as (new graduates) can engage in the debate. ..."
This sentiment was echoed by the four-member student panel at the symposium.
Natalie Fording, a second-year student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said her veterinary college offers limited animal welfare learning opportunities, even though many students on campus are interested in the topic.
Some animal welfare advocates are calling for the topic to be incorporated into all core classes.
"I'm going to have people coming to me in small animal practice asking me about horse slaughter or (Proposition 2), and if I don't know, they're going to get (the information) elsewhere," Fording said.
The same goes for veterinary students themselves, said Ashley Smit, a second-year student at Kansas State University.
"If you have a student committed to animal welfare and there's only one group talking loudly about it, they'll gravitate to it, even if they have aligned interests or not," Smit said.
Jamie Swoboda, a third-year student at Missouri, wants to see animal welfare issues incorporated more into the core medicine courses so she can understand when and why to apply to certain procedures and know the concerns to discuss with clients.
Swoboda said, "Some students don't think animal welfare affects them directly. If we had more discussion of animal welfare, more students would value the importance of it and what changes in animal welfare mean for their career."
U.S. veterinary schools and colleges at Tufts University, the University of Florida, Michigan State University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison were all mentioned for their noteworthy offerings in animal welfare education. Dr. Janver D. Krehbiel, dean of Michigan State's veterinary college and an AVMA Executive Board member, added that North Carolina State University was developing an animal welfare class that should be online within the next year or two. Otherwise, most veterinary colleges do not have classes dedicated to animal welfare, or they avoid the topic entirely.
Implementing more animal welfare education into the veterinary curricula won't come easy.
Dr. Linda K. Lord, assistant professor at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, said veterinary faculty and staff still haven't figured out where animal welfare belongs in the veterinary curriculum and whether it should be a core for all students, not to mention who should teach animal welfare and what teaching methodologies should be used.
One of the contributing challenges involves the logistics of adding another course to an already full veterinary curriculum, according to Janice Siegford, PhD, assistant professor in the Michigan State University Department of Animal Science.
Dr. Siegford mentioned that the geographic location of students seeking instruction often does not coincide with the location of qualified instructors in animal welfare. In fact, she said, most U.S. veterinary schools do not have faculty with training and expertise in animal welfare. Animal welfare faculty are typically housed in animal science departments rather than in veterinary schools, and not every veterinary school is located at a university with an animal science department. However, a growing number of veterinarians, including those at Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa State, and Washington State universities and all but one Canadian veterinary school, now have faculty with animal welfare expertise.
Dr. Siegford argues that online courses work well in teaching multidisciplinary subjects such as animal welfare because they allow for collaborative content assembly and delivery by pooling resources from multiple instructors to create the depth and breadth needed. They also permit instructors and students from various geographic locations to participate. Students can complete material according to their schedules and at their own pace. Drawbacks to online courses include less human interaction and a perception that classes are less important.
Students had their own suggestions for incorporating animal welfare into their schedules.
Tristan Colonius, a third-year student at Louisiana State University, said animal welfare doesn't receive the respect it should owing to a lack of understanding.
"Animal welfare does intersect with all disciplines of veterinary practice. Teachers could take this up in their own courses," he said.
Swoboda agreed, saying it would be beneficial to students for professors to incorporate animal welfare into their didactic courses before the students proceed into clinics rather than to rearrange the curriculum.