Last month, an animal rights group sent veterinarians a survey asking questions about using animals in the training of veterinary students. The tone of the letter was clear: The group believes that alternatives to the use of animals should be adopted.
Using animals for teaching and research is complex and controversial. As I read the survey, I wondered if any of the group’s members would volunteer their own dog to be the first patient for a new veterinary graduate who never had that responsibility before.
Veterinary school starts with anatomy. A student can learn about anatomy from textbooks and models, but nothing can compare to the dissection of a cadaver to see the intricacies of the structures. Soon after starting veterinary school, my roommate and I tried to adopt dogs as pets from a shelter. The shelter questioned if we would use the dogs for experimentation. In the mid-1970s, animals left shelters without being spayed or neutered and pet overpopulation was out of control. We were denied because we did not have a fenced yard. Even though we were veterinary students promising the best care of the dogs, we were treated rudely and asked to leave.
That was my first experience with the animal rights movement. I did adopt a shelter pet from another facility. She lived a long life and her picture with my daughter hung on my office wall for three decades.
In my third year in veterinary school, we performed student surgery on dogs, using them for multiple procedures. We worked as a team and rotated between anesthesiologist, assistant and primary surgeon. Upon graduation, everyone in the class was expected to be comfortable doing basic surgery. Without student surgery, there would never have been enough time for an entire class to become experienced in surgery. My first complex surgery at the veterinary hospital I started working at was a successful intestinal procedure that I learned in student surgery.
As a veterinarian, I have taken classes in which dogs were used in training. In a single weekend, we were taught to use a laprascope to perform complex tasks with a minimally invasive technique. One dog was used for multiple procedures. In that weekend of training, our team of four mastered techniques that ultimately saved the lives of many patients. The training would have been impossible to do on clinical cases as it would have taken years to generate the caseload necessary for hands-on experience.
In addition to veterinary training, virtually every major medical advancement uses laboratory animals. Cats, dogs and primates account for less than 1 percent of the animals used in research. Every vaccine, antibiotic, pain medicine and treatment for disease, including cancer, diabetes and heart failure, have depended on the use of animals.
These medical advancements not only benefit human health but have significantly impacted animal health. Pets and people benefit from information learned with the use of research animals. Ideally, science should search for alternatives to the use of live animals when practical, and researchers should always try to be respectful of the animals used in the laboratory. Attempts to minimize pain should always be considered.
On occasion, poorly conducted research is used by critics to suggest that research on animals is not necessary. In fact, veterinarians, veterinary technicians and animal care employees are highly trained to provide care for laboratory animals both to ensure a good environment and to comply with laws, regulations and policies that protect research animals. Scientists obtain specialized training to carry out humane procedures and a high standard of care is not only required but is good science.
Ensuring that animals are healthy, stress-free and in an optimal environment minimizes variables that could negatively impact the value of research. The goal of biomedical research is advancing medicine and science for the benefit of both people and animals.
Lawrence Gerson is a veterinarian and founder of the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic. His biweekly column is intended to educate pet owners. Consultation with a veterinarian is necessary to diagnose and treat individual pets. If you have a question you’d like addressed in Pet Points, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and municipality or neighborhood.