Why veterinary education needs major improvements


For many years I have spoken with veterinary students and practicing veterinarians about the ups and downs of what they are learning to do and their lives as practicing veterinarians, and frankly I was shocked to learn about the many hidden and serious challenges of becoming and being a veterinarian.

Three recent trials–The great veterinary shortage, Vets face increased risk of suicide amid pandemicand ‘Relentless calls and constant abuse’: why UK vets are in crisisand a penetrating and revealing book – an insider’s view of veterinary education and medicine – by Nadine Dolby of Purdue University titled Learning animals: program, pedagogy and becoming a veterinarian reignited my interest in learning more about the hidden costs of being in the veterinary medicine industry. Here is what Nadine had to say about her book.1

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write learn animals?

Nadine Dolby: There is a rich history of research into the experiences of medical students. Also, the entire field of medical humanities welcomes researchers from outside medicine to help rethink medical education. But research on veterinary education is much more limited. Most of it is done by the faculty of the veterinary school. I hope my book will contribute to change and inspire others to join in this important work.

The United States faces a severe shortage of veterinarians. Veterinary education must develop, but it must also be rethought. learn animals follows 18 veterinary students from orientation to graduation. I tell their complicated, fascinating and often painful stories. I also tell the story of thousands of animals, giving them voice and presence.

Source: CRC Press, with permission.

MB: What is the link between your book and your background and your areas of interest?

ND: As an educator, I know that the teaching and learning of animals does not take place in colleges of education. K-12 teachers aren’t our society’s primary animal educators: veterinarians are.

I realized that if I wanted to understand why society views animals in a particular way, I had to go to the main source of our knowledge – always understanding that knowledge is partly socially constructed and partly historically variable – and that is veterinary education.2

MB: Who is your target audience?

ND: This is a book for people who care about animals and human-animal relationships. I hope veterinary teachers and students find support and hope in the stories. The new field of veterinary humanities is taking off very quickly. I want scholars outside of veterinary medicine to read the book and be inspired to do their own research. The change needed in the veterinary profession cannot be internal only. Like what has happened in medical education over the past fifty years, veterinary education must open up.

MB: What are some of your main messages?

ND: The book follows students through their veterinary training, from their initial enthusiasm and passion, through their encounters with animals – both living and dead – to the crushing pain that many of them experience at during their clinical year. Along the way, they face dozens of moral, ethical, and personal struggles with their relationships with animals and people, but never have the time or space to reflect on these issues. What struck me was that the students told me that the only time they had to reflect on these mixed messages and emotionally agonizing experiences was when they met with me once a year.

The stories in the book can be difficult to read. Part of the book was very difficult to write. Why are veterinary students required to trap pigs? Asked to bond with then euthanize a chicken? During their clinical year, why do students cry in their cars for an hour after their shift ends before they can even drive home? Why does a student tell me that she developed anxiety during veterinary school, but came to accept it as part of the profession? Why are their experiences systematically ignored? Much of what happens in vet school seems to reflect what John Gluck calls a “herd mentality.”

Jessica Pierce writes in the book’s beautiful preface that the veterinary profession is attempting what she calls “mission impossible.” That’s what I heard from these students for five years. The high suicide rates among vets, the enormous human and animal pain and suffering everywhere you look, all of this has to change.

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I believe that for the profession to survive and grow, it must seriously examine the moral and ethical contradictions that lie at the heart of its practice. In the end, the book is about love. What does it mean to love animals? How to love otherwise, in a compassionate way towards animals and humans?

MB: How does your book differ from others that deal with some of the same general topics?

ND: 25 years ago, Arnold Arluke launched what he called a “plea” for more sociological studies on veterinary education. I thought about his advocacy when I wrote this book. Until recently, there were very few studies on veterinary education from outside.

Jenny Vermilya’s wonderful new book, Identity, gender and follow-up: the reality of borders for veterinary students, gives me hope that this is starting to change and that the field of veterinary humanities will begin to give voice to new ways of thinking about how we educate veterinarians.

In the coda, I reflect on my experience sitting with my terrified little dog in a crowded, overwhelmed veterinary hospital on my campus on a hot July afternoon. I watched vet students, residents, interns, and doctors running around desperately trying to keep up with the crush. I like the profession of veterinarian, despite everything. I care deeply about animals and the humans who love them. I feel like I have no choice but to speak up, stay engaged, and carry on.


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