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Humane Alternatives in Veterinary Education

Dear friends,

The following article of mine advocating humane alternatives to harmful animal use in veterinary education has just been published in the UK�s Veterinary Review. The PDF including pictures is here and may also be downloaded from animals_in_education_veterinary_education_knight_2007.htm . It will doubtless generate letters from vets objecting to criticism of these traditional practices; hence letters supporting humane teaching methods would be appreciated, if you are able to assist, and especially if you are a veterinarian. The contacts are below.

Thank you and best wishes,

Andrew Knight

Animal Consultants International

Veterinary Review letters to the editor:

E-MAIL: [email protected]

FAX: 01449 723801

TELEPHONE: 01449 723800

Knight A. Humane teaching methods in veterinary education. Veterinary Review 2007;126:16-21.

Average circulation: 12,000 (distributed free to all practising vets, head nurses and practice managers based in the UK and Northern Ireland.)

ANIMAL USE RESULTING in harm or death has historically played an integral role in veterinary education worldwide, in disciplines such as surgery, physiology, biochemistry, anatomy and pharmacology. However, many non-harmful alternatives now exist, including computer simulations, high quality videos, �ethically-sourced cadavers� from animals that have been euthanased for medical reasons, or have died naturally or in accidents, preserved specimens, models and surgical simulators, non-invasive self-experimentation and supervised clinical experiences (Rowan 1991, Bauer 1993, Knight 1999, Gruber & Dewhurst 2004, Martinsen & Jukes 2006).

Humane veterinary surgical courses ideally comprise several stages. Students learn basic manual skills such as suturing and instrument handling using knot-tying boards, plastic organs and similar models. They then progress to simulated surgery on ethically-sourced cadavers. Finally students observe, assist with, and then perform necessary surgery under close supervision on real patients that actually benefit from the surgery�as distinct from on healthy animals that are later killed�similar to the manner in which physicians are trained (Knight 1999). Animal shelter sterilisation programs are a popular component of many humane veterinary surgical courses worldwide (Richardson et al. 1994, Howe & Slater 1997). The UK is the only major region of the developed world where such non-harmful surgical training is the norm.

Faculty opposition to humane teaching methods

Protracted struggles by veterinary students around the world have shown that some veterinary academics remain opposed to the introduction of humane teaching methods. While a veterinary student at Western Australia�s Murdoch University in 1998, I had to initiate legal action and media exposure of curricular animal killing before Murdoch allowed their use. To its considerable credit, Murdoch then responded positively by introducing Australia�s first formal policy allowing conscientious objection by students, agreeing to provide them with humane learning and assessment activities on request. Similar policies have since been adopted by other universities within Australia and abroad.

In 2000 a classmate and I became Western Australia�s first veterinary students to win the right not to have to kill animals in our fourth year terminal surgical laboratory classes, under Murdoch�s conscientious objection policy. To my knowledge, ours was the only alternative veterinary surgical course worldwide in which the academics charged with providing non-harmful practical instruction refused to do so, because of their opposition to the concept, instead requiring students to arrange their own instruction outside the university in private clinics and animal shelters. Despite this we succeeded, gaining five times the surgical experience of our classmates who killed to obtain their degrees. Included were 21 dog and cat spays. It felt wonderful to be contributing positively towards the dog and cat overpopulation problem through neutering, thereby preventing unnecessary deaths, instead of causing them during our surgical training.

Since then, veterinary student colleagues at all of Australia�s other established veterinary schools have experienced similar opposition when requesting humane learning methods. Some were nevertheless successful, with the result that by 2005 the first students had graduated from all four established Australian veterinary schools without killing animals during their surgical training. The University of Sydney went further, entirely eliminating all terminal surgical laboratories in 2000.

Faculty opposition to humane teaching methods is by no means a uniquely Australian phenomenon. In 2002 the United States Department of Agriculture cited nearly every US veterinary school for non-compliance with the federal Animal Welfare Act. Most citations were for failing to search for alternatives to harmful or lethal animal use, or for failing to provide adequate explanations as to why non-harmful alternatives were not used (Anon 2005).

Some interesting psychological phenomena may explain the marked resistance of some faculty members to humane teaching methods. Maintenance of a belief in their invalidity may be necessary to avoid personal guilt associated with the large-scale killing of animals in veterinary courses. Gruber & Dewhurst (2004) further asserted that:

"Human vanity is also a factor that should not be underestimated. For many university teachers it is not acceptable to diverge from the methods one was taught and which one has always used in a life of teaching. Aversion towards accepting alternatives that were not developed in one�s own country also plays a role."

Systematic reviews of veterinary student learning outcomes

Nevertheless, the reasons most commonly cited by academics opposed to humane teaching methods are concerns about their educational efficacy. Accordingly, it was refreshing to see the recent systematic review by Patronek & Rauch (JAVMA, 2007) of studies of biomedical student learning outcomes achieved by humane teaching methods in comparison to terminal live animal use. Five studies examined veterinary students, of which two resulted in superior, and three resulted in equivalent learning outcomes, when alternatives were employed in surgical and physiology teaching laboratories. Patronek & Rauch concluded that "alternatives are a viable method of instruction in the field of biomedical education."

Non-terminal harmful animal use was not considered, however, such as equine nasogastric intubation when conducted by novices, and repetitive bovine rectal palpation. Consequently, I conducted a more comprehensive systematic review of studies of veterinary student learning outcomes (Knight 2007). Nine of 11 studies assessed surgical training. 45.5% (5/11) demonstrated superior learning outcomes using more humane alternatives. Another 45.5% (5/11) demonstrated equivalent and only one (9.1%) demonstrated inferior learning outcomes. Twenty nine papers in which comparison with harmful animal use did not occur illustrated additional benefits of humane teaching methods, including: time and cost savings, enhanced potential for customisation and repeatability of the learning exercise, increased student confidence and satisfaction, increased compliance with animal use legislation, elimination of objections to the use of purpose-killed animals, and integration of clinical perspectives and ethics early in the curriculum. These studies may be viewed at �studies.�

Other advantages of humane teaching methods

Besides saving substantial numbers of animal lives, humane teaching methods increase compliance with legislative requirements to minimise harmful animal use.

Additionally, some evidence indicates that veterinary education may result in the decreased likeliness of students to view animals as sentient, in decreased empathy towards animals, in decreased propensity to administer peri-operative analgesics and in impedance of moral reasoning ability (Self et al. 1991 & 1996, Hellyer et al. 1999, Paul & Podberscek 2000 and Levine et al. 2005). Along with inadequate curricular attention to animal welfare science, the human-animal bond and the development of critical reasoning ability and ethics (Self et al. 1994 and Williams et al. 1999), the harmful use of animals within veterinary education are likely causes (De Boo & Knight 2005 & 2006). These desensitisation-related phenomena may represent psychological adaptations enabling students to withstand psychological stresses resulting from curricular requirements to harm sentient creatures in the absence of overwhelming necessity (Capaldo 2004). Consequently, the replacement of harmful animal use with humane teaching methods is likely to result in veterinarians with more positive attitudes towards animal welfare, which is likely to directly benefit their animal patients.


The evidence clearly demonstrates that veterinary educators can best serve their students and animals, while minimising financial and time burdens, by introducing well-designed teaching methods not reliant on harmful animal use. Students should not be required to mount lawsuits before veterinary schools allow the use of humane teaching methods. It is no longer necessary to harm animals in veterinary education, if ever it truly was. And when the necessity is removed from a necessary evil, all that remains is the evil.

Further information about humane teaching methods in veterinary education is provided by Jukes & Chiuia (2003) and at,, and Synopses of surgical simulators designed primarily for medical students and practitioners are provided at


Anon. Nearly every veterinary school cited by USDA for non-compliance with federal law. Alternatives in Veterinary Medical Education 2005;25:2-3.

Bauer MS. A survey of the use of live animals, cadavers, inanimate models, and computers in teaching veterinary surgery. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 1993;203(7):1047-51.

Capaldo T. The psychological effects on students of using animals in ways that they see as ethically, morally or religiously wrong. Alternatives to Laboratory Animals 2004;32(Suppl 1b):525�31.

De Boo J & Knight A. "Concepts in animal welfare": a syllabus in animal welfare science and ethics for veterinary schools. Journal of Veterinary Medical Education 2005;32(4):451-3.

De Boo J, Knight A. Educating the veterinary professional about animal welfare. Altex: alternatives to animal experimentation 2006 23(special issue: Proceedings: 5th World Congress 2005):71-4.

Gruber FP & Dewhurst DG. Alternatives to animal experimentation in biomedical education. ALTEX 2004;21(Suppl 1):33-48.

Hellyer P, Frederick C, Lacy M, Salman MD &Wagner AE. Attitudes of veterinary medical students, house officers, clinical faculty, and staff toward pain management in animals. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1999;214:238�44.

Howe LM & Slater MR. Student assessment of the educational benefits of a prepubertal gonadectomy program (preliminary findings). Journal of Veterinary Medical Education 1997;24(1):12-7.

Jukes N & Chiuia M. From Guinea Pig to Computer Mouse: Alternative Methods for a Progressive, Humane Education. 2nd Edn. Leicester, UK: InterNICHE. 2003. Available at

Knight A. Alternatives to harmful animal use in tertiary education. Alternatives to Laboratory Animals 1999;27(6):967-74.

Knight A. Humane teaching methods demonstrate efficacy in veterinary education. In Dandie G. (Ed.). ANZCCART Conference 2006: Proceedings. University of Adelaide, South Australia: Australian & New Zealand Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Teaching (ANZCCART). 2007; in press.

Levine ED, Mills DS & Houpt KA. Attitudes of veterinary students at one US college toward factors relating to farm animal welfare. Journal of Veterinary Medical Education 2005;32(4):481-90.

Martinsen S & Jukes N. Towards a humane veterinary education. Journal of Veterinary Medical Education 2006;32(4):454-60.

National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). Australian Code of Practice for the Care and Use of Animals for Scientific Purposes (7th Edn.). Canberra, ACT, Australia: Australian Government Publishing Service. 2004.

Patronek GJ & Rauch A.Systematic review of comparative studies examining alternatives to the harmful use of animals in biomedical education. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2007;230(1):37-43.

Paul E & Podberscek A. Veterinary education and students� attitudes towards animal welfare. Vet Rec 2000;146:269�72.

Richardson EF, Gregory CR & Sucre E. Enhancement of the surgical education of fourth year veterinary students by participation in juvenile ovariohysterectomy and castration program. Veterinary Surgery 1994;23(5):415.

Rowan AN. The use of alternatives in veterinary training. In Hendriksen CFM & Koeter HBWM. (Eds.). Animals in biomedical research. Replacement, reduction and refinement: present possibilities and future prospects. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Elsevier Science Publishers. 1991. 127-139.

Self DJ, Schrader DE, Baldwin DC Jr, Root SK, Wolinsky FD & Shadduck JA. Study of the influence of veterinary medical education on the moral development of veterinary students. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 1991;198(5):782-7.

Self DJ, Pierce AB & Shadduck JA. A survey of the teaching of ethics in veterinary education. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 1994;204(6):944-5.

Self DJ, Olivarez M, Baldwin DC Jr & Shadduck JA. Clarifying the relationship of veterinary medical education and moral development. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 1996;209(12):2002-4.

Williams S, Butler C & Sontag MA. Perceptions of fourth-year veterinary students about the human-animal bond in veterinary practice and in veterinary college curricula. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 1999;215(10):1428-32.

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