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Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter

14 April 2003 Issue

U.S. medical schools using fewer dogs
Cost-cutting, protests from animal-rights groups are among incentives
By Bruce Taylor Seeman
Newhouse News Service

The nation's medical schools are phasing out the use of dogs in classroom training as they trim costs, revise course requirements and embrace more bloodless instructional methods.

Thirty-two percent of medical schools reported using dogs or other live animals in laboratory training in 2001, down from 62 percent in 1994 and 73 percent in 1985, according to a study published in Academic Medicine, the journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The hundreds of dogs used in medical school labs pale beside the more than 70,000 used annually in research experiments, drug testing and other procedures.

Animal rights activists say the shift is important, showing that simulation technologies are a viable substitute. They hope that fewer dogs being used in medical schools will lead to fewer dogs used in research projects.

"If they don't have to cut up dogs in education, perhaps they won't view dogs and other animals as disposable tools," said Martin Stephens, a vice president at the Humane Society of the United States.

Those who have participated say that anesthetized dogs are spread-eagled on tables, then hooked to monitors. The animals may receive drugs or have body cavities opened for students to view functioning anatomy or to practice surgery.

Activists view using animals in medical schools as unethical and unnecessary. Defenders of the practice say the daylong labs are carefully supervised by instructors, and that students get irreplaceable hands-on experience.

"The experience cannot be substituted by any computer simulation," said Michael Levitzky, a physiology professor at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans. "Can a computer simulate how much pressure to put on a bleeding artery?

Can it help you understand pain and evaluate the level of anesthesia needed?"

The Academic Medicine study, published in November, tracked the practice at the nation's 125 medical schools in three training categories from 1994 to 2001. It found that:

Eighteen percent of physiology courses, down from 39 percent, used live animals. In such courses, students learn how the heart beats, how lungs breathe and how other organs work.

Five percent of pharmacology courses, down from 10 percent, used live animals. In these classes, students study drugs' effects on heart rate, breathing and other body functions.

Eighteen percent of surgery courses, up slightly from 17 percent, used live animals.

The use of live animals in all three categories has declined sharply since 1985, when 63 percent of schools used animals in physiology, 50 percent used animals in pharmacology and 38 percent used animals in surgery.

Experts attribute the trend to several factors.

Dogs, the animals most commonly used in labs, can cost $500 or more and are expensive to maintain. Pigs are now used more often among medical schools that still use live animals.

"In this state, we're in serious budget difficulties," said Sarah Ellis, a spokeswoman at the University of Colorado, where the medical school recently stopped using live animals.

Many medical schools have stopped using live animals in labs because time is short; classes covering genetic research and other popular topics have been squeezed into busy curricula.

In addition, high-tech mannequins, plastic organs and other technologies offer effective teaching alternatives to animal use.

Anatomy Revealed, a computer program developed at the Medical College of Ohio in Toledo, lets students "melt away" tissue to explore the intricate mechanics of the head, eye and other areas.

Pressure from animal-rights groups has also had an effect, said Dr. Lawrence A. Hansen, who opposes using live animals in medical training and who co-wrote the study in Academic Medicine.

"Does the dog have any value at all?" asked Hansen, a neurosciences and pathology professor at the University of California, San Diego. "If the dog was a block of wood, I'd say go ahead and do this. But we have to do a cost-benefit analysis. It's a lifetime of caging, followed by vivisection and then euthanasia. And that's a high ethical cost for the dog to pay."

Chad Sandusky, a toxicologist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, an animal-rights group, said hindsight has convinced him that using live animals was unnecessary to his education.

"We had already studied these drugs in the classroom," Sandusky said. "I knew that if you gave epinephrine to an animal, its heart rate would go up."

The universities that don't use live animals in training include some of the most prestigious, among them Harvard, Duke, Yale, Stanford, Pennsylvania, Columbia and others.

Some still view the practice as vital in certain areas of instruction.

"Surgeons need to practice on some first thing," said Tony Mazzaschi, associate vice president for research at the Association of American Medical Colleges. "Patients don't want to be that first thing."

But even in surgery training, opponents said, the use of live animals can be avoided. The best way for future surgeons to learn, they say, is to watch experienced surgeons work on real patients, gradually assisting with procedures under close supervision.

"Students are highly motivated going into operation theaters," said Dr. Andrew Knight, an educator with the American Anti-Vivisection Society.

"They are seeing lives being saved, and they're being reminded of why they went into medicine in the first place."

Copyright 2003, The Baltimore Sun

 

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