Animals in Teaching

Animals are used in teaching in a variety of settings, most notably, high schools, universities and for professional training. An argument often used in support of animal-based education, particularly dissection, is the superior educational merit of the “hands on” experience. However, there is mounting evidence to suggest that the educational merit of non-animal alternatives is equal to or higher than the use of animal-based teaching methods (see our Completed Projects page for details of a literature review comparing the educational merit of animal-based versus non-animal teaching methods). Reasons for this might include (but are not limited to):

  • the ability to re-use non-animal alternatives over and over again to consolidate learning
  • students are not distracted by emotional responses to cutting up animals
  • advanced technology (e.g. the virtual dissection app for the iPad) allows students to develop important skills in using technologies that will serve them in the future

High Schools

Animals are typically used in high school science education for dissection purposes. Standard species used for dissection include frogs, rats and fetal pigs. High schools do not fall under the mandate of CCAC. As a result the use of animals in high school is not governed in any formal way.

In 2010, after pressure from animal advocacy groups, the BC Teachers Federation changed their dissection policy, which now reads: “the BCTF encourage teachers to consider the use of alternatives to animal dissection in meeting the learning outcomes in the science curriculum.” (BCTF policy document available here). While the acknowledgement of non-animal alternatives is a positive step, this policy wording still leaves the use of non-animal alternatives to the discretion of individual teachers. Furthermore, there remains no requirement for teachers to educate their students about non-animal alternatives, or to give their students the option of using them. As a result, students who might wish to opt out of using animals in their high school education are still burdened with having to do research on non-animal alternatives for themselves, and advocating for themselves.

A more meaningful way to provide true choice to students would be to implement a student choice policy across Canada. Currently, student choice policies are implemented at the school district level and only a few districts across Canada have student choice policies in place: Abbotsford, BC; Burnaby, BC; Kelowna, BC; Vancouver, BC; West Vancouver, BC; Toronto, ON; and South Shore, NS. The Animals in Science Policy Institute is currently working on this issue – see our Current Projects page.

Universities (including medical and veterinary schools)

Live animals and animal cadavers are used in undergraduate teaching at universities. Since universities typically receive research funding from CIHR or NSERC, they are required to comply with CCAC policies and guidelines (note that this only applies to live animal use, or when animals are killed on site for dissection purposes. CCAC does not oversee the use of externally sourced animals for dissection).

CCAC policy dictates that, “painful experiments or multiple invasive procedures on an individual animals, conducted solely for the instruction of students in the classroom, or for the demonstration of established scientific knowledge, cannot be justified” (CCAC, 1989). The Categories of Invasiveness are used to determine the potential harm that animals might experience as a result of their use in experiments or as part of teaching exercises. Categories D and E represent the most negative impact on animals. Category E is defined as, “procedures that cause severe pain near, at, or above the pain tolerance threshold of unanesthetized conscious animals”. Category D is defined at “experiments which cause moderate to severe distress or discomfort.” It would logically follow that there should be no animals listed in Categories D or E for teaching. However in 2015 for the purposes of teaching there were 29 animals assigned to Category E, and 40, 466 assigned to Category D (see Facts and Figures).

Undergraduate animal dissection

Animals, or their organs or tissues, are often dissected as part of undergraduate biology labs. Typical species include dogfish, mudpuppies, rats, pigeons, fetal pigs, and cows (often used for their organs and tissues, such as eyes, lungs, heart, liver etc.). These animals are sourced either as “waste” animals from the fishing or food production industry, or they are purpose bred for dissection by external suppliers.

A project was carried out exploring the use of animals in undergraduate teaching at one Canadian university (the University of British Columbia). The project report, and the web-based educational resource that was developed as the primary output from the project are available on our Projects page.

Undergraduate live animal use

Some undergraduate programs involve the use of live animals. For example, psychology and neuroscience departments sometimes use live rats to demonstrate behavioural concepts, or for research projects that undergraduate students are involved in. In these cases, for institutions under the CCAC program, an animal use teaching protocol must be filled out and the use of animals must be reviewed and approved by the institutional animal care committee.

Medical and veterinary education

One of the most persuasive arguments for the merits of animal-based teaching come from those concerned about the training of medical and veterinary students. Proponents of animal-based teaching argue that dissection and animal handling with live animals (including surgeries) are essential for training medics and veterinarians in the skills they need. However, there are a growing number of medical and veterinary schools that offer animal-free education. Notably, none of the top medical schools in the US (including Harvard and Stanford) require that students use animals during their medical training.

Professional training (e.g. animal research technicians)

Animals are used for the training of animal research technicians, who because of their role in animal research, are required to be competent in certain skills, including animal handling and taking blood samples.

Replacing animals in the training of professionals, like research technicians, might at first seems highly challenging. However, it is possible that the formal training, such as the Registered Laboratory Technician (RLAT) course can be done using non-animal alternatives. Then the research technician would learn animal handling skills on the job, under close supervision of a mentor – this would mirror the type of training medical surgeons receive, where they intern with qualified mentors and learn first by observation, then by doing tasks under close supervision, then only when the mentor assesses them as competent can they work alone.