The use of animals in graduate education has dramatically declined. Over the past several years, medical and veterinary schools are incorporating new teaching resources and alternative methods that do not involve the harmful use of animals. However, this does not apply to all schools. Some medical schools still use live animals for surgical training and often veterinary schools’ curricula involve animal dissection and the use of live animals in a number of different ways.
In order to obtain animals, medical and veterinary schools may purchase animals from biological supply companies and/or random source dealers, have contracts directly with shelters or pounds, or use animals purposely bred and killed for student use; smaller animals like frogs, fish, and birds may be taken from the wild. Schools also use animals destined for slaughter; horses may be used for dissection in anatomy classes and young pigs are frequently used for exploratory surgery in non-survival (terminal) surgery labs.
Medical (and pharmacology) schools used live animals in terminal labs for teaching physiology, surgery, and pharmacology. Originally, students conducted most terminal surgeries on dogs; however, the use of dogs in terminal labs in medical schools ended in 2007. The few schools still performing terminal surgeries on animals now primarily use pigs and sheep. For example, pigs are often used in cardiovascular medical procedures, in which students insert tubes in the pigs’ arteries and veins, block the arteries, inject drugs into them, and then open the pigs’ chests to manipulate their hearts. Once the training is finished, the pigs are then killed. In addition to pigs, some medical schools also use rabbits, frogs, and rats in their physiology courses (for military medical training, please visit Military Research.
Live animals are also used in continuing medical education programs such as Pediatric Advanced Life Support training and Advanced Trauma Life Support (ATLS) courses. In pediatrics residency training, one of the core procedures taught is endotracheal intubation. This procedure is usually done to cats, kittens, and ferrets, and involves a tube being placed into the animal’s windpipe through either the mouth or nose. Since students repeatedly use the animals in this type of training, as a result they suffer from tracheal bruising, bleeding, scarring, severe pain, and even death. Even worse, when using rats, students sometimes discard them in “dead” piles while still alive. Speed is of the essence in training intubation techniques and as such results in clumsy, cruel mishandling where students rarely consider the animal’s needs. Rather, students treat rats and other small, relatively inexpensive animals as learning tools with no concern for their suffering. In ATLS courses, educators use animals to teach procedures for dealing with acute trauma injuries, like how to make an incision in the neck in order to relieve an obstructed airway. In these courses, students subject pigs (and sometimes goats) to numerous invasive procedures and then kill them at the end of the training session.
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Overall, most medical schools today are incorporating a multitude of advanced human anatomy computer software programs and human-like simulators, especially as preparatory tools for surgical training, and nonhuman cadavers are rarely, if ever, chosen as specimens in medical school dissection classes.
In veterinary schools, anatomy and physiology classes continue to use animals such as cats and dogs for dissection. In clinical skills training and surgery courses, live animals are used to teach students clinical skills, surgeries, and procedures. Live animals are also used in terminal surgery labs, where healthy animals are euthanized after being subjected to various invasive procedures, and in survival surgery labs that allow animals to recover after the procedures.
Surgical training, anatomy, and clinical skills are taught in core (required) courses, with surgical training in some elective (optional) courses as well, and usually involve both small animals (cats, dogs, etc.) and large animals (horses, cows, sheep, pigs, etc.). Although a majority of veterinary schools no longer require terminal surgeries in their core courses, there are schools that still conduct them in elective courses, along with a few schools that do not offer students any alternatives at all.
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Thankfully, the number of veterinary schools offering positive alternatives to the harmful use of animals continues to increase and many schools that used to require terminal surgeries are no longer killing animals, but are instead providing for their post-surgical recovery and care as part of their student training. Veterinary training programs, called Shelter Medicine, allow students to perform needed procedures such as spaying, neutering, or other necessary surgeries on animals in shelters under licensed veterinary supervision. Other progressive vet programs include “willed body” programs where the animals come from an ethical source: for example, after a natural death or humane euthanasia for a terminal illness from the school’s own associated veterinary hospital or clinic.
In 2000, NEAVS and its educational affiliate the Ethical Science Education Campaign (ESEC) worked successfully with the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine to make it the first vet school in the country to end terminal surgery labs, replacing them with an official Shelter Medicine program that allows students to learn valuable training and skills while simultaneously saving animal lives by providing critical services to shelters.
Fortunately, times are changing and as graduate and postgraduate programs move beyond animal use, it will prove even more difficult for college, high school, and middle school educators to justify animal dissection. Currently in the U.S., 25 out of 28 veterinary schools allow alternatives for some or all of their courses involving invasive or terminal procedures on animals and 96 percent of medical schools no longer use live animals in their medical student training.
NEAVS/ESEC speaks out for humane medical and veterinary training and believes that better education and humane practices are the components of a win-win scenario for medical and science education. Guaranteeing the choice of a cruelty-free science education is the only way to allow, support, and encourage compassionate students to enter the field of science and ultimately change the way science does science.