Practicing on pets

UC Davis veterinary program ends controversial requirement that students operate on live animals

Dr. Nedim Buyukmihci is one of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine faculty members who has long advocated for an end to terminal surgeries.

Dr. Nedim Buyukmihci is one of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine faculty members who has long advocated for an end to terminal surgeries.

Photo By Larry Dalton

The dog lies immobilized, spread-eagled over the stainless steel operating table. With scalpel in hand, the veterinary student performs the potentially life-saving practices learned in the classroom. The incision is made, the blood is sponged away, the edges of cut skin are sewn back together.

Hundreds of times each year, the scene has been repeated as third-year students at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine perform splenectomies, gastrotomies, small intestinal resections and anastomosis, cystotomies, nephrotomies and other invasive surgical procedures they will use to save the lives of people’s pets.

For years, these surgeries have been performed on live dogs in course VMD 407L: Principles of Operative Surgery and Anesthesia. Students learn a variety of procedures, but each end the same way. After instructors inspect the abdominal closures, the students complete their assignment by providing Rover with a lethal dose of barbiturates, killing the patient.

These “terminal surgeries” are common in veterinary schools across the country, but the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine removed the requirement this year from its core curriculum, beginning a phaseout of a controversial practice long derided as inhumane by animal rights activists.

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In some respects, the curriculum change is largely symbolic. UC Davis students have been able to opt out of doing terminal surgeries as “conscientious objectors” for more than 10 years, ever since animal rights activists began pushing for an end to the procedures.

Even with terminal surgeries being removed from the core laboratory curriculum for most veterinary students, many UC Davis students specializing in large animal medicine will still have to perform them, and there are still many elective courses in which small animal veterinary students may still perform terminal surgeries on dogs and cats.

So this change only means that the school will no longer ask most of its veterinary students to perform terminal surgeries as standard practice. But that is a distinction that was an important one to faculty members and animal rights activists, who believe that including terminal surgeries in the core curriculum sent the wrong message to these vets-in-training.

Critics of the procedure claim that not only is the use of live animals in teaching unnecessary and unethical, but also that the participating students haven’t always thought through what it is that they’re doing beforehand.

Many prospective students are unaware that terminal surgeries are a part of veterinary school. Some say that even after arrival the reality doesn’t always begin to sink in for the student until later, despite the fact that they were informed about the issue by the school.

“It’s so hard to get into vet school, a lot of us aren’t even thinking into the third year,” says David Clark, president of the Student Animal Welfare Committee (SAWC), a student club that promotes animal welfare and surgery alternatives. “You’re bombarded with so much information at the start.”

Beyond the symbolic importance of not asking students to kill animals, the curriculum change has also reduced the number of animals being killed by UC Davis students. And as the faculty explores new alternatives to terminal surgeries, even for its elective classes, that number is expected to drop even lower, with some school officials predicting that the practice at UC Davis could be eliminated altogether within the next 10 years.

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The dogs and cats used for terminal surgeries come from regional shelters such as Sacramento County Animal Care and Regulation, which provided UC Davis with nearly 500 animals last year. The practice is often referred to as “pound seizure.”

At the Sacramento County shelter, animals deemed unadoptable that go unclaimed for four business days—or a maximum of seven business days if they wore a tag when they were picked up—will either be destroyed or sold to research at the rate of $75 per dog.

Animals rights activists tried to end the practice of selling live animals for research with Measure L in 1989, but the measure was defeated after winning less than 35 percent of the vote. Selling pound animals to research “is a directive from the voters,” says Animal Care and Regulation director, Patricia Wilcox.

Yet that electoral defeat did little to quell the growing concerns about terminal surgeries by both students and faculty members at UC Davis, sensibilities that for the last decade have butted up against the belief that the procedure gives students valuable experience with real surgeries.

The purpose of terminal surgeries on pound animals is to teach students the principles and techniques pertaining to the opening, exploring and closing of a small animal’s abdominal cavity.

Once a standard and accepted part of UC Davis’ veterinary program, that began to change about 10 years ago when students and some faculty members urged the school to allow cadavers to be used as substitutes, thus paving the alternative road upon which many other “conscientious objectors” would follow.

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Although UC Davis allowed students to opt out of doing surgeries on live animals, it made the stipulation that the students would have to provide their own cadavers for study.

As the interest in alternative methods to animal research grew across the nation, the search for cadavers that had been adequately preserved became increasingly difficult. Refusing to take cadavers from pounds, SAWC organized a “Body Will Program,” in which students made arrangements with the clients of local veterinary hospitals.

“When you take up the attitude that you can do whatever you want with an animal taken from the pound, it really devalues the life of that animal, and the lives of animals in general,” says Clark.

In 1993, SAWC sponsored an orientation meeting for first- and second-year students in order to introduce them to alternative methods. At that point, at least 25 veterinary schools in North America were offering non-traditional learning options to their students.

At the meeting, John Pascoe, the executive associate dean, disclosed to students that the number of terminal surgery labs was being reduced from nine to three. In the remaining six labs, students would perform spay/neuter surgeries on animals that would be returned to shelters for adoption. Rather than conduct the three terminal surgery labs, conscientious objectors had the option of performing a total of nine spay/neuter surgeries.

In the first year of this new curriculum, 86 percent of the dogs and cats involved found homes through adoption, a number which has remained constant today.

In 1999, SAWC worked with Teri Barnato and Lara Rasmussen of the Davis-based Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights (AVAR) to create their own alternative soft tissue surgery training lab, which was conducted on weekends. Despite the fact that more alternatives were available than ever before, terminal surgeries continued, and so did student complaints to the administration about the practice.

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One student said that her friend was “pretty discouraged and sad” when the students next to her destroyed a dog after performing the same operations that she had conducted on a cadaver. The debate over terminal surgery labs continues to generate strong opinions among students.

“Not a single one of the dogs that my surgery group worked with would I find comfortable finding a home for—they were either dog-aggressive or people-aggressive,” says Brian Buckton, a senior who found terminal surgeries to be a valuable learning tool.

Yet the strongest feelings on the issue seem to come from the animal rights side of the equation.

“I don’t think that an animal has to die just to show that tying off a blood vessel to the spleen is different than tying off a blood vessel to an ovary,” says Jill Hoffman, a junior. “Human medicine doesn’t kill anybody to teach students, and I don’t understand the mentality of consuming animals to teach students.”

After “extensive faculty deliberations,” Pascoe—togeher with professors Jan Ilkiw and Clare Gregory—opted to expand the spay/neuter surgeries and eliminate the remaining three terminal surgery labs from the third-year core completely, starting this year.

With the decision, UC Davis became just the fifth veterinary school to eliminate terminal surgeries from its required courses, joining Tufts University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Florida, Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin. Davis is one of 31 North American veterinary schools that provides alternatives to traditional curriculums.

Pascoe defends the decision, stating that the move increased opportunities for the adoption of shelter animals while eliminating student concerns—all without sacrificing the level of student exposure to surgical anatomy.

Some in the department, such as Dr. Ned Buyukmihci, have long been fierce critics of the terminal surgery requirement, consistently pushing for a change since the late ’80s. Buyukmihci calls the new curriculum a big step forward, but is still pushing the school to eliminate terminal surgeries entirely.

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Has this decision signaled the end of the school’s involvement in “pound seizure” and terminal surgeries? Not quite.

Terminal surgery labs continue to exist in elective courses. For the academic year 2000-2001, one school official predicted that “about 330 animals may be sacrificed in all courses combined.” An estimated 120 of them will be dogs that come from animal shelters.

Conscientious objectors still remain limited in their options at the school. If a student wishes to concentrate on treating large animals, such as horses, participating in terminal surgeries is inevitable.

Many students and faculty don’t believe that alternatives will ever exist in such courses, and the implications of that belief divide the mainstream alternative advocates from the more radical groups such as AVAR.

Professor Ilkiw believes some terminal surgeries are still necessary, but that the responsible use of animals in education and research should be a priority for universities, and that alternatives to terminal surgeries should be pursued when they are both available and appropriate.

Despite their philosophical differences, faculty members and animal rights activists alike have all hailed the recent decision as a positive one for both students and animals.

“It’s a huge step,” says SAWC member Carrie McNeil, a junior. “But it’s my hope that this is one step toward reducing animal use in the curriculum and that the students and faculty work together to provide other alternatives for students in the future.”

In public recognition of the decision, AVAR has pledged a cash merit reward of $1,000 to the school to help finance the continued development of educational computer models.

“These changes reflect a growing awareness in our society that animals’ lives are important,” Barnato said, “and that people care what happens to them.”