Do Vet Schools Adequately Prepare Students For Ethical Decisions?
Veterinarians experience a unique set of ethical challenges when they must juggle what is in the best interest of their animal patients with that of animal caretakers’ wishes. For example, caretakers may elect to forgo a recommended treatment due to cost or insist on euthanasia when alternative options exist. In addition, veterinarians are increasingly expected to address ethical issues in environments such as factory farms, zoos, and research facilities. Standards of animal care vary greatly between these environments, as does the way in which a single species may be treated within each environment. For example, a rabbit kept as a pet may be treated differently than a rabbit living in a petting zoo or one raised for meat, fur, or vivisection. Animal ethics courses explore these inconsistencies.
The addition of ethics into veterinary school curricula is relatively new. Philosopher Bernard Rollin at Colorado State University and Dr. Harry Gorman, former American Veterinary Medical Association president, developed the world’s first course in veterinary medical ethics in 1978. The number of ethics courses in veterinary curricula is increasing. As such, a growing number of studies are looking at whether students graduate from veterinary school with the knowledge and confidence to make the most ethical decisions and take action consistent with their moral judgments.
The current study assessed the moral behavior of first- and final-year veterinary students at an Australian university. The authors wanted to understand whether students believe they are able to identify animal ethics issues, the extent to which they experience moral distress over these issues, and whether they had taken action to address the issues. The authors also wanted to know whether students prioritize moral values – which we use to decide what is “right” and “wrong” – relative to other values.
The authors found that a majority of the students (93%) were concerned about how animals are treated and experience moral distress over certain animal ethics issues (69%). Both first- and fifth-year students felt they had a better understanding of animals’ physical characteristics than animals’ mental and emotional lives. Notably, students who were more knowledgeable about animals’ mental and emotional capabilities were also more likely to have taken action to address animal ethics issues.
Of the students who expressed the most concern over animal ethics issues, 54% felt they had not taken sufficient action to resolve these issues. Those who had taken action felt that the university did not support their efforts. The authors point out that universities could do a better job of encouraging students to discuss animal ethics issues, providing opportunities for students to take action, and helping students build the “psychological toughness” necessary to persist in their advocacy work.
A majority of students (70%) believed that a veterinarian’s top priority should be the welfare of their animal patients, and 90% believed that the veterinary profession should take a leading role in advocating for animal welfare. However, only one-third of the surveyed students believed the profession is adequately involved in advocacy efforts.
This study demonstrates that veterinary students believe animal advocacy is a key component of the veterinary profession, yet students don’t feel that the profession is adequately involved in promoting the ethical treatment of animals. Encouraging veterinary schools to make animal ethics and welfare courses a mandatory part of the curriculum would better prepare students for the ethical challenges they face in the field and empower them to take action to protect animals in a variety of captive environments.
[Contributed by Christina Skasa]