When Cynthia Carlson was accepted into Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, she didn’t think she would later volunteer to bring in her own dog for use in a teaching exercise.
But with the college facing a shortage of animals, Carlson and other veterinary students have done just that.
The shortage occurred last spring when Spokane County Animal Shelter stopped sending live dogs slated to be euthanized to the vet school. As a result, the college no longer has a sufficient number of animals for students to use in several noninvasive exercises.
The shelter stopped supplying the animals because of pressure from animal rights groups and activists, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which claim that the veterinary medicine program subjects animals to inhumane treatment. Activists are currently trying to convince other shelters in the region to quit shipping animals, either live or cadavers, to the school.
The university’s veterinary program disagrees with PETA’s claims, as do many practicing veterinarians and veterinary students.
In the meantime, more than half a dozen veterinary students have provided the college with their own pets so they and their colleagues can get the live-animal training needed to become professional veterinarians.
“It didn’t hurt her; it was like a human getting a pap smear,” Carlson said about the vaginal swabs and other noninvasive procedures that were performed on her pet, Miranda, during a reproductive exercise for third-year students.
Veterinary teaching exercises at WSU are noninvasive, or minimally invasive as prescribed by law, such as the one that Carlson’s dog experienced. All required courses are nonterminal, but students must gain surgical experiences, such as spays and neuters, on shelter animals. In 2002, students at the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital helped spay, neuter, and return to the region’s shelters for adoption more than 700 animals that otherwise would likely have been destroyed.
Junior-year students can elect to perform one terminal surgical exercise, which requires an unadopted shelter dog slated for euthanasia. The subject animal is euthanized after surgery is performed while it is still under anesthesia to ensure that it feels virtually no pain.
The terminal laboratory is optional and students who object to working on a live animal are provided with cadavers on which to perform surgery.
The Spokane shelter still provides cadaver animals to the college and takes advantage of WSU’s long-standing free spay and neuter service.
But the college, which has enjoyed international acclaim for its humane curriculum for more than a decade, has been criticized by national animal rights groups and even a few of its own students.
Activists contend it is unethical, even cruel, to perform any procedure that is not necessary from an animal’s point of view, regardless of whether it is alive or a cadaver.
To many students, teachers and veterinarians in private practice, that philosophy is not realistic or beneficial, and the pressure on the school from letters, e-mails, phone calls and the resulting animal shortages, have made some express their disapproval.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, more than 4 million dogs and cats are euthanized every year.
“It is incomprehensible to have shelter personnel put animals to sleep and dump their bodies instead of allowing veterinary students to learn procedures designed to alleviate illness in future patients,” said Dr. Joseph Harari, a WSU veterinary alumnus who currently practices veterinary surgery in Spokane. Harari was also an associate professor in the WSU Veterinary Clinical Sciences.
“The majority of pet owners and hiring veterinarians want an attending DVM (doctor of veterinary medicine) with animal experiences and not training based exclusively on computers, rubber models, or thawed chicken parts,” Harari said.
Third-year veterinary student Nicholas Hopkins also has concerns about the controversy. “What we learn will help us save countless numbers of animals in the future by knowing how to do a tracheotomy, or a thoracotomy when an animal’s life is at stake,” he said. “I don’t want to be unprepared for the first surgery I do on a client’s animal.”
According to Dr. Kit Bower-man, WSU alumnus and president of the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association, the skills that veterinary students learn when working with live animals are multifaceted.
“I think it is extremely important to be able to do hands-on surgery on live animals,” he said. “Cadavers don’t have the same feel, and you have to know how to respond to a bleeding animal.”
Dr. Bonnie Campbell, an assistant professor of small animal surgery at WSU, also said other differences between cadavers and live animals include the ability to hold sutures, to work steady while an animal is breathing, and to watch monitors while working.
“We can’t save all animals,” Bowerman said. “…I think that learning how to humanely euthanize an animal and deal in a compassionate manner with the owners is one of the best skills a veterinarian can learn.
“When I was in surgical class at WSU, we humanely anesthetized our teaching animals, performed surgery, and euthanized them after surgery was finished,” Bowerman added. “This was difficult as we would have liked to see the animal find a home, but we knew that these animals were not adoptable, and … that we ended their life in a humane and dignified manner.”
Faculty members at the college have spent years developing and implementing alternative methods and procedures, such as the use of computer simulations and models to reduce the numbers of animals used.
For years, the College of Veterinary Medicine led the nation in this area. So far, their efforts have had a dramatic impact. Fifteen years ago, more than 600 animals were euthanized in elective courses at WSU. During 2001 – 2002, that number was reduced to 48.
The college’s program was also featured as one of the nation’s best in the Jan. 2001 cover articles of “Alternatives in Veterinary Medical Education,” published by the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, known as AVAR.
The 103-year-old WSU College of Veterinary Medicine currently maintains the highest level of accreditation that can be attained by a veterinary teaching institution in North America through its accreditation by the American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Education, the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians, and the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care.
Still, PETA is campaigning to have other animal shelters sever ties with WSU.
To Campbell, their focus on WSU is puzzling in light of the leadership the college has shown.
“We have a very high standard of care here — we don’t cut corners,” she said.
“With the involvement of PETA, the security of the animals now plays a big role,” Hopkins said, who likes to visit and bring treats to the teaching dogs. “We cannot go and see our dogs except at certain times of the day when a staff member is present. It’s sad that we cannot be trusted to take our dogs out for a walk.”
“We are here to learn how to become healers,” Carlson said, “and I for one want to get the best possible education that I can before I am licensed to practice medicine on other people’s animals.”