The Perception Of Animal Pain By Veterinary Students
Veterinary students face numerous ethical challenges in the course of their studies. As professionals making life-and-death situations for animals, distinguishing their own views on animal ethics and incorporating these ethics into their decisions is crucial for veterinarians to cope with difficult situations, communicate with clients, maintain job satisfaction, and advance animal welfare. As part of the veterinary curriculum, students are taught about animal cognition and pain perception, which can in turn inform the development of their ethics.
To study the effects of veterinary education on students’ views regarding animal ethics, the authors collected data from veterinary students at the University of Helsinki. One set of data was collected regarding views on pain perception in different animal species. Another set of data was collected using Animal Ethics Dilemma (AED), an online tool which aims to break down animal ethical views into common ethical schools of thought. These schools of thought include:
- utilitarianism (maximizing human and animal welfare)
- animal rights (animals have inherent value which should be respected)
- respect for nature (protecting the integrity of each species)
- contractarianism (obligations to animals insofar as they matter to other humans)
- relational views (moral status depends on the relationship to the animal)
218 students participated in the study, representing about 35% of all 1st-, 3rd-, and 5th- year students. Responses to the Animal Ethics Dilemma indicated that the most prevalent ethical views across all students were, in order, utilitarianism, respect for nature, animal rights, relational views, and contractarianism, though almost all students had multiple views represented in their responses. Students with more utilitarian and animal rights views were less likely to represent any of the other views. Students in later years of study had more contractarian views than students in earlier years.
For the pain perception survey, students rated pain perception on a Likert scale from 0 (pain causes only reflexes) to 10 (pain is subjectively experienced) for 13 animal species. The 13 species represented both wild and domesticated animals, as well as vertebrates and invertebrates. Results can be summarized as clustering into three groups: mammals were given median scores of 10, fish and octopodes were given median scores of 7, and all other invertebrates were given median scores of 3-4. Average pain perception scores increased with more years of study in the veterinary curriculum.
The authors hypothesize that the prevalence of utilitarian views may be due to its natural alignment with the practice of veterinary medicine, where animal instrumentalization is not entirely avoidable. However, it is not clear if the views represented in this study are different from the views of the larger Finnish population (or different from the attitudes of veterinary students in other countries), and it is not clear how much of the results are due to the nature of the tool (the Animal Ethics Dilemma) used to gather the data. Students in later years of study were more likely to have views on animal pain perception which matched the current state of the science.
For advocates, including companion animal and farmed animal advocates, knowing more about how veterinary students think is important. Today’s students are tomorrow’s veterinarians, and they will be working with animals for years to come. While we can’t simply extrapolate these results to all veterinary students around the world, the study itself offers a potential blueprint for other researchers to explore.