Animals in Science / Education

Colleges and Universities

Every year millions of animals are used in college science courses, and many of the cruel uses of animals that occur in high schools—especially in advanced biology classes—are repeated in collegiate level courses. Cats are commonly dissected in anatomy, fruit flies are bred for mutations in genetics, and live rats are used in psychology. In advanced physiology or anatomy classes, frogs can be subjected to a surgical procedure called pithing, in which a sharp object (a pin or a knife) is inserted into the frog’s mouth or neck, to severe the spinal cord. Students then remove or destroy the brain. The purpose of pithing is to destroy the animal’s central nervous system in order to study physiological processes, as the animal will continue to function physiologically for hours after the procedure. A teacher’s lack of training or inadequate supervision of students doing the pithing procedure can result in a paralyzed but conscious frog as the student cuts into his or her immobilized body. There are many reports of frogs desperately attempting to free themselves from the dissection pan. The entire procedure involves a slow and hideous death for the frog, and extreme trauma for a student who believes it is unethical to cause pain and death to another living being.

Most colleges and universities create their own guidelines on the use of animals in the classroom, and dissection policies can depend on the professor or the department’s own views and policies. Because of this, students who wish to avoid or debate dissection and other uses of animals are often left with few resources. There are currently no state laws that require private or state colleges and universities to offer dissection and other animal lab alternative choices for students. However, unlike elementary and secondary schools, the AWA does cover the use of certain animals in research, teaching, and testing in university and college settings.

For dissection labs, many schools acquire cat and dog cadavers directly from animal shelters or from random source dealers and biological supply companies, some of which have a history of Animal Welfare Act (AWA) violations yet continue to operate. Schools also buy animals purposely bred and killed for student use from licensed animal breeders. In 2007, more than 47 colleges and universities in the U.S. were using live or dead dogs and cats for undergraduate teaching and training purposes, with at least 23 using live dogs and cats.1 Likely because of the costs involved in procuring dogs versus the more readily and less expensive availability of cats, students rarely dissect dogs in high school and undergraduate biology classes.

NEAVS opposes the surrender of animals from animal shelters and pounds to research labs and educational institutions, and was a founding member of coalition efforts going back to the early 1980s to ban this practice—known as pound seizure, in Massachusetts. The successful campaign resulted in the first and one of the strongest anti-pound seizure laws in the U.S. and protects thousands of lost and abandoned dogs and cats each year from being used in research.


Fortunately, there are a number of schools today that have adopted their own student choice policies and/or allow students to use alternatives. More than 27 colleges and universities have student choice policies in place and an additional 37 schools allow non-animal dissection alternatives.2 Available alternatives include computer software programs that simulate animal dissection or human anatomy and physiology, models, and animal cadavers donated through ethical sources like willed body donation programs or educational memorial programs.

Research suggests that students who learn from models, computerized dissection software programs, charts, interactive CD-ROMs and DVDs, audiovisual aids, anatomical clay models, shelter medicine programs (where animals and students benefit), or other alternatives perform as well or better on tested subject matter as do students who used specimens.3 In addition to superior learning, educational advantages afford students to learn at their own pace, to make up missed classes or content, and ultimately to make learning more fun, interactive, and humane.

NEAVS and ESEC, the educational campaign of NEAVS, work to guarantee students at all levels of science education the right to learn science without having to harm or kill animals. Through ESEC, we offer dissection alternative programs and support students at the high school, college, and professional school levels.

[1] AAVS (2009). Dying to Learn Report.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hughes, I. E. (2001). Do computer simulations of laboratory practicals meet learning needs? Trends Pharmacol Sci, 22(2), 71-74.