Learning Live: Training New Veterinarians With An Eye Towards Animal Welfare

Dr. Patty Khuly

Veterinary Training on Live Animals

It’s a perennial question. How do you train veterinarians without hurting the animals they have to practice their skills on?

It was a really big deal when I was in vet school twenty years ago. After all, how could anyone who wants to help and heal animals for the rest of their lives NOT stress out about spaying their first patient?

But the dirty secret is this: Everyone eventually has to learn on a live patient who would almost certainly be better off in the hands of someone more experienced and schooled.

So here’s where I ask: Ever thought about how veterinary students learn to perform surgery? In the old days, your animals would be our learning tools. But things have changed.

In the last thirty years, veterinary education has been transformed. Because we treat more pets than farm animals, and because we are concerned more for the welfare of animals than ever before, learning directly on loved-for pets is a big no-no when it comes to something as tricky as surgery.

That’s why we now rely on either shelter animals that require spays and neuters to learn and hone our skills in that area, or on the "use" of laboratory animals that are destined to be euthanized upon completion of the procedure.

It’s sad, I know. Which is why veterinary students are never required to participate in these so-called "non-recovery" or "terminal" surgical procedures. They may choose to do so if they want to acquire more experience in advance of a career in veterinary medicine, particularly if they have a special interest in surgery. Most of us choose to learn surgery in internships, residencies, or on the job.

The dogs are well-treated and always euthanized if it’s a painful procedure. But that’s not good enough, some of us say. Terminal procedures are increasingly frowned upon as learning tools and more schools are shying away from offering them.

After all, the animal welfare issues involved in using purpose-bred animals to fill this function is considered immoral by an increasing percentage of veterinary students. The controversy can get intense in school environments where lots of hand wringing accompanies the very serious animal welfare issues inherent to our profession.

This necessary gnashing of teeth is why many veterinary schools are opting out of live animal surgeries altogether. And that makes sense. But we have to learn somehow. And what are our alternatives? Computer modeling? More cadaver training?

Sure, that’ll help. But the bottom line is that no matter what we do, we’ll always need to learn on live animals at some point. Indeed, we continue to learn on live animals throughout our careers. I mean, why else would they call what we do a “practice?”

Tell me what YOU think would make most sense in training veterinary students. Should they get as much learning done as possible in school using live animal subjects or should they rely on on-the-job education while working under mentors? I’d love to hear your take on this subject.

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