Today’s guest post is by Kelly Walton DVM, a third year student of comparative medicine at Colorado State University. Kelly explains why her love of animals led her to a career in laboratory animal welfare.
The views expressed below are that of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of her employer or institution.
Most of us can probably look back on our childhood and remember “that kid” in school who was hopelessly obsessed with all things cute and furry. The kid who preferred spending their time with four-legged friends over the human variety, and who decorated their class notes with drawings of animals. The strange, socially awkward type who would hold impromptu funerals in their backyard for a tragically deceased bird or mouse. I was that child growing up in a small town in northern Ohio. There wasn’t a single species of animal I didn’t love (or try to bring into my parents’ house), and at an early age I had accepted that this would probably be my identity for life.
It has come as no surprise to residents of my home town that I left high school and pursued a degree in veterinary medicine. Probably unimaginable was the thought that I could have done anything with my life that did not directly involve working with animals. My chosen focus, however, has drawn countless quizzical looks from many of my acquaintances, old and new, and has at times proven to be a very effective conversation killer. I am currently in the final months of my post-doctoral training in laboratory animal, or comparative, medicine. My patients are not pets or production animals, but living models of human and animal disease. I receive many questions when I discuss my job with the people I meet – “Isn’t animal-based research cruel and unnecessary?” “Why do laboratory animals even need a veterinarian – aren’t they just killed in the name of science?” “How can someone who loves animals as much as you say you do work in an environment in which they’re used for scientific experiments?”
“I believe I have chosen the speciality in which I can have the single most important impact on animal welfare”
These are all questions that I’m sure the high school version of myself would ask if I were to have a conversation with her today. And they are valid questions, because until the scientific community can fully embrace the concept of transparency without fear of widespread misrepresentation, we can’t expect the general public to truly understand what we do.
On June 12, 2010, I stood with my veterinary class at The Ohio State University and recited an oath that I have taken to heart and applied to my professional life every day since. Similar in content to the physician’s Hippocratic Oath, one may wonder if the practice of laboratory animal medicine is in direct contradiction to the principles therein. I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, I believe the Veterinarian’s Oath could have been written specifically with my colleagues in mind. It is my sincere hope that the points below will clarify the vital role of veterinarians in this deeply rewarding profession I call my own.
Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare…
Laboratory animals are no different than their counterparts living in homes or on farms around the world. They can become sick. They are susceptible to infections that may require medical intervention. They can injure themselves. They require preventive health plans and vaccinations. Just as your pets have a veterinarian to address all of their medical needs, the laboratory animals at my institution have me, as well as many other talented veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and husbandry personnel that are dedicated to their wellbeing. We work diligently to ensure that our animals are healthy and well-cared for – not only because ethically it’s the right thing to do, but because the integrity of the science produced by these animals depends on it.
Unlike my colleagues in general veterinary practice, I have a right to make healthcare decisions for my patients that do not depend on the opinions, level of compassion, or financial status of their owners. This is a responsibility that is given to me by the numerous laws and regulations that govern the use of animals in research. It is ultimately the obligation of the attending veterinarian or their designee to determine when a medical concern requires intervention and to provide the necessary treatment, and as impartial players in the research process, our number one priority is to advocate for the animals’ welfare.
…the prevention and relief of animal suffering…
Veterinarians are instrumental in the direction of laboratory animal care programs, and are responsible for developing practices to meet all of our animals’ environmental, nutritional, and social needs. We implement policies and provide training and oversight to ensure that these policies are followed, and establish systems for the timely reporting and management of animal-related concerns. In addition, laboratory animal veterinarians often conduct their own studies investigating novel methods for improving animal welfare in the research setting. The wellbeing of laboratory animals depends heavily on the existence of veterinarians who are solely dedicated to the continual improvement of their quality of life.
Surprisingly to some, most research procedures cause little or no pain or distress to animals (for example, routine injections, blood collections, or observations). However, some studies may require procedures that are more invasive and create the potential for discomfort. It is for this reason that a veterinarian must be consulted in all stages of planning an animal use protocol. During this process, we advise investigators on the best way to accomplish their experimental goals while maintaining sound animal welfare practices. This can mean ensuring that appropriate anesthetics and analgesics are provided as necessary; that physical restraint is minimized and appropriate for the species involved; that post-procedural monitoring is adequate; that personnel are adequately trained to perform the proposed procedures; and most importantly, that alternatives to potentially painful procedures are considered and used whenever possible. Veterinarians are uniquely qualified to make these determinations due to their extensive training in both basic science and medicine, and the ability to oversee animal research empowers us to prevent unnecessary suffering.
…the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.
The importance of animals in research cannot be overstated. Animals have been vital in the development of every major medical discovery, and an effective alternative system to completely eliminate the need for animals in research has not yet been established. As laboratory animal veterinarians, we understand that animal use is necessary to improve our understanding of disease, however we also believe that it is a privilege that must be carried out humanely. Animal research has given us insulin, antibiotics, vaccines, organ transplantation, chemotherapy, and a host of other lifesaving technologies that would otherwise not have been possible. My position allows me to support these breakthroughs while also ensuring the ethical care and use of research animals.
For the animal lovers among us, it is important to note that these discoveries not only benefit humans, but other animals as well. Joint replacements, cancer treatments, neurodegenerative disease therapies, and numerous emergency procedures are now possible in animals because the concepts were initially studied in animals for use in people. As a veterinarian in laboratory animal medicine, I have the privilege of contributing to the “One Health” initiative that has been adopted by both the AMA and the AVMA in the United States. In this environment, physicians and veterinarians collaborate and share new information that can translate between human and veterinary medicine, resulting in longer, healthier lives for all of our patients.
I will practice my profession conscientiously, with dignity, and in keeping with the principles of veterinary medical ethics. I accept as a lifelong obligation the continual improvement of my professional knowledge and competence.
The concept of animal welfare does not mean that animals share the same rights to life and liberty as human beings. Advocates of animal welfare, unlike animal rights activists, believe in the responsible use of animals for human purposes such as food, clothing, entertainment, or research. They also believe that humans have a moral obligation to treat all animals with respect, dignity, and compassion, to provide all basic needs for a comfortable life, and to minimize pain and suffering. The practice of laboratory animal medicine is not only consistent with the principles of animal welfare, but I believe it is truly a model for them. In no other facet of this profession can I imagine having the opportunity to promote veterinary ethics while also contributing to the advancement of human and animal medicine, public health, and scientific knowledge.
My career in laboratory animal medicine, still in its infancy, has asked a lot of things of me. It has required that I learn to love and appreciate all animals, including the very small and sometimes not-so-cute. I’ve had to broaden my clinical skills to become proficient in the medical care of species I previously did not know existed. I have learned that I must be prepared to tackle many challenges that I was not prepared for in veterinary school. The daily tests are one of the things I love most about my job. This career does not mean that I turn my back on any part of the oath that I took on the day that I graduated. To the contrary, I believe that I have chosen the speciality in which I can have the single most important impact on animal welfare. And I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of such a wonderful and compassionate profession.
Kelly Walton DVM
Colorado State University