Since prehistoric ages mankind used animals for food, transport, company and later also for experimental purposes, paralleling the development of medical science.
Greek philosophers were amongst the first to perform vivisection for scientific purposes, mainly focusing on descriptive anatomy.
Due to the views of the French philosopher Descartes (1596-1650), animals were regarded as non-sentient creatures, not capable of feeling pain. Jeremy Bentham`s ideas ("the question is not, can they reason? nor can they talk? but, can they suffer?") initiated in 1789 the debate on animal experimentation, although it would take until the end of the 19th century before the first antivivisection organization was established. However, the development of biomedical disciplines such as pharmacology, toxicology, virology and immunology caused a remarkable increase in the use of animals in the 20th century.
World wide about 75-100 million vertebrate animals are used now in animal experiments. In Europe approximately 1% of the experimental animals is used in education and training.
From the late 70`s onwards animal experimentation became a political issue and in several European countries legislative regulations were established. At the same time the number of experimental animals used decreased, but showed an increase again, starting the last decade, mainly due to the increased use of transgenic animals.
The European legislation on experimental animals is based on two documents. In 1985, the Council of Europe launched the Convention for the Protection of Vertebrate Animals used for Experimental and other Scientific purposes (ETS 123), followed in 1986 by the EC Directive for the Protection of Vertebrate Animals used for Experimental and other Scientific purposes (86/609/EEC). These legislative regulations are based on the premise that under certain conditions it is morally acceptable to use animals for experimental and other scientific purposes. As a guiding principle the Three R concept of Russell and Burch (1959), Replacement, Reduction, Refinement is used.
Most laws contain provisions to protect the animals, such as the definition of legitimate purposes for animal use, competence of scientists and animal staff, the use of alternatives, prevention of unnecessary pain and distress.
One of the legitimate purposes is the use of animals in education and training (art.2 ETS 123). In biomedical education a variety of disciplines uses animals and animal tissues in order to acquire knowledge and develop skills. However, procedures involving animals carried out " for the purpose of education, training or further training for professions or other occupations, are only permitted when the objective cannot be achieved by comparable effective audio-visual or any other suitable methods" (art.25 ETS 123).
In veterinary medicine, the use of animals is mainly focused on learning and practicing skills such as animal handling, animal behaviour, dissecting and surgical skills, but may also include understanding of anatomy, physiology, pharmacology and biochemistry. Eventually, the knowledge obtained in this way should benefit the animal itself on the long term, rather than human beings, as it is the case in the education of medical doctors.
The use of animals in veterinary education is becoming a subject of a moral debate and is often opposed on educational and practical grounds.
However, the experienced discomfort of the animals in relation to the purpose of their use should play a major role in this debate. For example, the grade of discomfort will be different for animals used for practicing handling skills or for surgical training.
Many alternatives have been developed and are already in use in veterinary education, such as interactive videos and computer simulations, dummies (e.g., bicycle inner tubes, DASIE, Koken rat), slaughterhouse material, ethically sourced cadaver surgery and clinical case-based practice. However, would it be feasible and desirable to replace all experimental animal use in veterinary education?
The debate on the use of animals in veterinary education should include the question who benefits:
1. The animal patients. Will they be treated and cared for in a better way when the veterinarians have been trained on living animals in their education?
2. The animal owners. Will they accept mistakes in clinical case-based experience being part of the veterinary education, especially when it concerns their own animals?
3. The veterinary students. Will the use of animals provide them with more skills and knowledge, will they be more confident about their skills and will they be better veterinarians?
When the latter appears to be the case, students should at least have a mandatory training in ethical aspects of the use of experimental animals and in the application of the three R`s.