AAVMC publishes handbook for use of animals in veterinary education

Recommendations offered for veterinary colleges on ethically sourcing cadavers, using animal models

Updated June 17, 2024

As the teaching of anatomy continues to evolve in veterinary education, faculty and staff members have more opportunities to incorporate innovative approaches into the curriculum. That is because of the development and greater availability of veterinary anatomy educational alternatives. These range from low-fidelity constructive modeling materials, to high-fidelity models or simulators, 3D printing, dissection software, augmented and virtual reality, and plastinated specimens.

An updated resource from the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) is intended to further contribute to progress in this area by promoting effective animal alternatives, supporting animal welfare and animal ethics, and the safety of veterinary students and the animals with which they learn, according to the association.

The AAVMC’s Task Force for the Use of Animals in Veterinary Education created the “AAVMC Handbook on the Use of Animals in Education,” which was released in April.

AAVMC Animal Use Handbook cover
The American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges' user-friendly “Handbook on the Use of Animals in Education” helps educators with how to improve their animal use policies, use of animal alternatives, and reporting transparency. (Photo courtesy of AAVMC)

The handbook is meant to build upon another AAVMC document, “Guidelines for the Use of Animals in Veterinary Education,” published in October 2022. The guidelines are meant to help AAVMC member institutions improve their animal use policies, use of animal alternatives, and transparency. However, both documents can also apply to preveterinary and veterinary technology programs.

The two-page guidelines recommend the following:

  • Annually reviewing animal use, including cadavers, from sourcing to disposal.
  • Identifying alternatives to animal use where appropriate.
  • Reporting to the institution’s senior veterinary administration at least annually.

There was no recommendation for reducing clinical caseload or medically necessary veterinary care.

Task force members then recognized that the document could benefit from additional information on how to implement the guidelines.

“While the Guidelines provided overarching principles and broad recommendations, the next step was to write a handbook to accompany the Guidelines, elaborating on how institutions could implement the Guideline’s recommendations, enabling them to support and promote humane and ethical animal use, guided by the 4 Rs: replacement, reduction, refinement, and respect,” according to the handbook’s abstract.

Dr. Julie A. Hunt, associate dean of clinical sciences at Lincoln Memorial University Richard A. Gillespie College of Veterinary Medicine, was chair of the task force.

“The task force sought to create guidelines, recommendations, and methods that would be aspirational for most veterinary colleges but not out of reach,” Dr. Hunt said. “Animal ethics also vary geographically, and the task force had to consider how to create guidelines and a handbook that would be relevant to all AVMA-accredited veterinary colleges worldwide.”

The handbook offers recommendations for veterinary colleges on implementing alternatives to cadaveric dissection, ethically sourcing cadavers, using animal models or simulators in teaching clinical skills, and reducing the reliance on institutionally owned animals for preclinical teaching.

Variation exists among use of live animals in teaching anatomy, according to a brief survey sent last year to North American veterinary schools. Among the 20 veterinary schools that responded, some reported the use of both small and large live animals to supplement teaching of anatomy, others reported the use of either small or large live animals but not both, and still other veterinary schools reported using no live animals.

“Curriculum revisions and the introduction of clinical skills courses into the early years of the curriculum led to the use of live animals being eliminated entirely from some anatomy courses,” the handbook stated. “Time constraints placed on anatomy courses, high student to faculty ratios, and institutional animal care and use compliance were all suggested as factors for eliminating the use of live animals from the gross anatomy courses.”

“Many people believe that anatomy must be taught primarily through cadaveric dissection,” Dr. Hunt said. “However, ethical concerns have been raised about the sourcing and traceability of cadavers. I think that the chapters relating to cadavers and anatomy teaching are critically important and offer an updated approach to teaching anatomy and acquiring cadavers in an ethically acceptable manner.”

For example, the handbook has a chapter on developing, implementing, and using a willed body program—in which the donation is accompanied by owner consent—to ethically source cadavers.

Another misconception is that using models in clinical skills training takes away from live animal practice and the skills learned on models are of questionable transferability. Dr. Hunt explained models often precede and supplement live animal use, although there may be times when replacement is ideal, such as invasive skills practice.

“The aim is not to eliminate the use of live animals in veterinary education. The goal is to optimize the animal ethics associated with veterinary training,” she said.

The AVMA has policies on “Use of animals in research, testing, and education,” “Use of random-source dogs and cats for research, testing, and education,” and “Use of animals in precollege education.”

Read more about the work Dr. Julie Hunt and other veterinary faculty members at Lincoln Memorial University are doing with simulators in clinical education.