“Right now, when they buy these dogs, they bring them in, and they do a surgery, put them to sleep, do the surgery, wake them up, next day, put them to sleep again, maybe take out a kidney, wake them up again, put them to sleep again, maybe break a leg, fix it, wake them up again and then they kill them,” Pickens said. “That’s barbaric. That’s what you did years ago. Medicine has changed.”So what's the deal? That sounds terrible, and I wouldn't blame her for not wanting her money to support such a program... The problem is, it's just not true. Yes, vet schools have students perform terminal surgeries. No, they don't have them perform multiple painful procedures on the same animal and inflict harm on the animals like breaking legs.
This story brings up a lot of questions. I'll try to give a vet student perspective on the issue...
The first question is, what is a terminal surgery? Also known as non-survival surgeries, these are surgeries in which an animal is anesthetized, a surgical procedure is performed, and at the end, the animal is euthanized rather than recovered. These are usually relatively painful procedures that are not necessary for the animal's sake (i.e. at the U of MN, our one terminal small animal surgery lab consists of a gastrotomy, an intestinal resection and anastamosis, and a cystotomy, which are all procedures performed to correct problems that the animals used for the lab don't have). Most schools consider it unethical to perform unnecessary surgical procedures, then put the animals through a painful recovery. So instead, terminal surgeries are performed on either shelter dogs or research dogs that were due to be euthanized. The ultimate outcome (euthanasia) is the same, but the animals provide a learning experience for a vet student before being put to sleep. They are given the same pre- and intra-operative care that we would give an owned animal, including pain control, inhalent anesthesia, IV catheter, and fluids.
The next question is, why do terminal surgeries instead of working on cadaver animals that have already been euthanized? While we do work with cadavers fairly often (two or three times a semester, plus during the entire first year anatomy course), working with live tissue on a breathing animal is far different than working on on dead tissue. Plus, there are lots of aspects of performing surgery besides working with the tissue itself- live animals require anesthesia, and live animals bleed, and live animals can have changes in their heart rate or blood pressure in response to what you're doing. You can do an awful lot of damage with poor surgical technique on a cadaver without ever realizing it, because a cadaver can't respond the same way that a live body can.
Lots of people wonder why vet students learn by performing terminal surgeries while med students (obviously) never use terminal procedures to learn. One of the biggest differences between human and vet medicine is that, as vets, we are qualified to do essentially anything to any species (except humans) after 4 years of school. That includes surgery, radiology, oncology, cardiology, and anything else. Human doctors, on the other hand, are required to do an internship and complete a residency program in their specialty of choice after graduating from med school. Human surgeons go through 5 to 7 years of training beyond med school to learn to perform surgery under the guidance of experienced surgeons. That's not to say that vet med shouldn't consider going the same way as human med- but the extra training comes with a big price tag. Also, human surgeons may not perform terminal surgeries on humans, but they do perform terminal animal surgeries as part of their training.
That's not to say that performing a terminal surgery is an essential part of becoming a veterinarian. There are plenty of great veterinary surgeons who never performed terminal procedures. Most schools offer alternatives for students that would like to opt out of terminal procedures. There are schools that only perform survival procedures (our only required surgery at the U of MN is a survival spay/neuter surgery on shelter animals, which I did last year on little Malibu, the dog in the picture). There are schools that use a combination of observation and practicing on models and cadavers. It still isn't clear what the best method of teaching surgery is, but at least schools are recognizing that not all students feel the need or desire to perform terminal procedures to learn. Frankly, the vast vast majority of surgical procedures will be performed for the first time on a client-owned animal anyway- we have the chance to practice just a few during vet school, while all the rest will be learned after graduation.
So, to bring it back to the original topic- Ms. Pickens has her facts wrong. There is absolutely no way that the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) protocols would allow schools to use animals for painful surgical procedures over and over. OSU uses the animals once for a relatively routine procedure (spay or neuter), recovers them with good pain control, and then uses them several days later for a non-survival procedure (for the same types of procedures as we do at the U of MN- gastrotomies, cystotomies, etc). There is no breaking of legs, no removal of kidneys, no recovering these dogs over and over. Ms. Pickens is right that medicine has changed- we don't do things like that today.
In these sensationalists type stories, people tend to forget that vet students are vet students because we love animals. Intentionally breaking a dog's leg so that we can fix it? That's just sick. We hate terminal procedures, but understand the need to learn everything we can from these animals who give their lives for our education. We cry. We kiss their heads. We tell them thank you and we're sorry. And we use the knowledge we gain from their bodies for all the animals we'll perform those procedures on in the future.
(For the record, I opted out of the terminal surgery.)
Update: Part II of this post is here