QI heard something from my veterinarian today that shocked me.

He told me that in veterinary school, he and his classmates performed surgical procedures on “laboratory” dogs for training, and then they put these dogs “humanely” to sleep.

None of that sounds very humane to me. Is this still a part of the veterinarians education?

A: I could not agree more with your comment. When I was a veterinary student at the University of Illinois in the early 1990s, that was, unfortunately, very much a part of the curriculum.

At that time, a few students were just beginning to ruffle feathers and opt out of any live animal labs. These students actually faced a degree of derision from the professors, especially the older ones.

“It’s sacrificing a few for the good of the many,” I remember one professor stating.

“Just think of how many animals you will help with the skills you learn today,” another said.

I must admit that I bought into this in practice, but not in my heart. It just seemed a massive contradiction. These dogs had access to the most advanced medical care to the tune of thousands of dollars.

Then you walk to the next building, and another dog is slated for a surgery lab that will end in his euthanasia. I’ll never forget when I was assigned my laboratory beagle. When I went to her kennel, there were about 20 beagles barking and wagging their tails. At least they did not seem afraid. But when I got to mine, it was another story.

She small and was very thin. Her barrel chest and pendulous mammary chains indicated a mother of multiple litters.

Her feet were permanently stained yellow, obviously from standing in urine. On top of all this, she was terrified. She was facing the back of the cage, trembling, and would not look at me.

As proud as I had been to be in veterinary school, this was not a moment that I would have shared with anyone. I actually felt ashamed to be a part of it. I went to the professor and told him I would participate in this lab only on the condition that I could adopt this dog at the end.

This spurred a chain reaction, and a few of my friends made the same deal. The plan was to administer reproductive hormones, make predictions of what their effects may be, and then spay the dogs and examine their reproductive tracts.

I hated going in to the kennel, but each day at lunchtime I would walk her. My wife and I named her Derby. As planned, we performed the spay, but what happened next was not according to plan.

I went to walk her, and as I approached the kennel area, it was strangely quiet. I entered and it was empty. With a hollow sense of dread, I went to the lab manager and was told that the plans had changed.

These dogs were moved to another building. They were to be used in a junior surgery lab and euthanized. Apparently, they were short on dogs, and all adoption offers were rescinded.

I told him I understood. I don’t know what the statute of limitations is on this kind of thing, but I can say that Derby and a few others did not spend another day in that facility. Derby spent her remaining years happily with us.

The lab manager frequently would comment on how strange it was that Derby just disappeared after we talked.

Human surgeons would never practice on “laboratory” humans in a civilized society. They find alternatives and use cadavers from volunteer programs. We do not have the luxury of using an alternative to four legged creatures, but that does not mean there are not alternatives.

Times and minds have changed. At present, virtually all veterinary schools offer the opportunity to opt out of live animal laboratory participation. Furthermore, the live dog and cat surgeries that are followed with euthanasia are all but gone.

At the University of Pennsylvania, pig intestines from a slaughter-house are used for gastro-intestinal surgical training. They and many other universities also offer computer simulators that couple an animal “dummy” and enhanced, interactive, graphics, that will “bleed” from a stray cut.

In addition, students can participate in spay and neuter surgeries for local humane societies to get a feel for real live tissue. I do feel that the skills derived from handling live tissue are invaluable, and the humane society programs are a win for everyone.

I don’t believe that the experience derived from a few other animal laboratories significantly boosts proficiency, nor is it anything that cannot quickly be gained from an internship program or a good employer/mentor for a new graduate. Someone once said that the measure of a civilization is in how it treats its animals. Based upon these changes, I’d say we’ve become just a bit more civilized since I left school.

Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to petdocs@postandcourier.com.