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Why Veterinary Education Needs Major Improvements

Behind-the-scenes candid views of the highs and lows of becoming a veterinarian.

Key points

  • Until recently, there have been few studies of veterinary education by outsiders.
  • Nadine Dolby's book, "Learning Animals," follows 18 veterinary students from orientation to graduation.
  • Dolby calls on the veterinary profession to examine the moral and ethical contradictions at the core of its practice.

Over many years, I've talked with students of veterinary medicine and practicing veterinarians about the highs and lows of what they were learning to do and their lives as practicing veterinarians, and frankly, I was shocked to learn about the numerous hidden and serious challenges of becoming and being an animal doctor.

Three recent essays–The Great Veterinary Shortage; Veterinarians face increased risk of suicide amid pandemic; and "Relentless calls and constant abuse": Why Britain’s vets are in crisis—and a penetrating, eye-opening book, an insider's view of veterinary education and medicine by Purdue University's Nadine Dolby titled Learning Animals: Curriculum, Pedagogy and Becoming a Veterinarian rekindled my interests in learning more about the hidden costs of being in the veterinary medicine industry. Here's what Nadine had to say about her book.1

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write Learning Animals?

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

The United States is facing a dire shortage of veterinarians. Veterinary education needs to expand, but it also needs to be rethought. Learning Animals follows 18 veterinary students from orientation to graduation. I tell their complicated, fascinating, and often painful stories. I also tell the stories of thousands of animals, giving them voice and presence.

CRC Press, with permission.
Source: CRC Press, with permission.

MB: How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

ND: As an educator, I know that teaching and learning about animals does not happen in colleges of education. K-12 classroom teachers are not our society’s primary educators about animals: veterinarians are.

I realized that if I wanted to understand why society thinks about animals in particular ways, I needed to go to the primary source of our knowledge—always understanding that knowledge is in part socially constructed and historically variable--and that is veterinary education.2

MB: Who is your intended audience?

ND: This is a book for people who care about animals and about human-animal relationships. I hope that veterinary faculty and students find support and hope in the stories. The new field of veterinary humanities is taking off very fast. I want academics 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 solely internal. Like what has happened in medical education over the past fifty years, veterinary education needs to be opened up.

MB: What are some of your major messages?

ND: The book follows the students through their veterinary education, from their initial enthusiasm and passion, through their encounters with animals–both alive and dead–to the crushing pain many of them experience in 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 think about these issues. What was striking to me was that students told me that the only time they had to reflect on these contradictory messages and emotionally excruciating experiences is when they met with me once a year.

The stories in the book can be tough to read. Some of the book was very difficult to write. Why are vet students required to snare pigs? Asked to bond with and then euthanize a chicken? During their clinical year, why are students crying in their cars for an hour after their shift is finished before they can even drive home? Why does one student tell me that she developed anxiety during vet school but has come to accept this as a normal part of the profession? Why are their experiences systematically ignored? Much of what happens in vet school seems to be a reflection of what John Gluck refers to as a “herd mentality.”

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

I think for the profession to survive and to grow, it needs to look seriously at the moral and ethical contradictions that are at the core of its practice. In the end, the book is about love. What does it mean to love animals? How can we love differently, in a way that is compassionate for both animals and humans?

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

ND: Twenty-five years ago, Arnold Arluke issued what he called a “plea” for more sociological studies of veterinary education. I thought about his plea when I wrote this book. Until recently, there have been very few studies of veterinary education from outsiders.

Jenny Vermilya’s wonderful new book, Identity, Gender, and Tracking: The Reality of Boundaries for Veterinary Students, gives me hope that this is starting to change and that the field of veterinary humanities will start giving voice to new ways of thinking about how we educate veterinarians.

In the coda, I reflect on my experience, sitting with my tiny, terrified dog in a crowded, overwhelmed veterinary hospital on my campus on a hot July afternoon. I watched the veterinary students, residents, interns, and doctors run around, desperately trying to keep up with the crush. I love the veterinary profession, despite it all. I care deeply for animals and for the humans who love them. I feel like I have no choice but to speak up, to remain engaged, and to continue.


In conversation with Nadine Dolby, Professor of Curriculum Studies at Purdue University, U.S.A. Nadine is the author or editor of seven books, and has published widely in the field of animals, society, and education. She has conducted research, lived, and worked in South Africa, Australia, and the United States. Nadine is the recipient of a Fulbright Award, and a Jefferson Award for Public Service and is the founder and President of Animal Advocates of Greater Lafayette.

1) Part of the book's description reads: "Learning Animals opens up this conversation through an exploration of the complicated, fascinating and often painful stories of a cohort of veterinary students as they make their four-year journey from matriculation through graduation. The book examines how the experiences of veterinary students shape how humans relate to animals, from public policy and decision-making about the environment and animals slaughtered for food, to the most personal decisions about euthanizing companion animals."

2) I also have a background in journalism, ethnography, and critical sociology of education. I am interested in human and animal stories. More recently, my work and my passion has focused on animals, society, and education. I served a three-year term on my institution’s IACUC, which was a profoundly educational experience. I was a volunteer at a local animal shelter for twelve years. I wanted to learn, so I went out and created my own curriculum at my institution and in my community. A few years ago, I started my own non-profit educational, advocacy, and service organization, Animal Advocates of Greater Lafayette

Veterinarians Can Help Promote Animal and Human Well-being.

Veterinarians Must Know What Dogs Are Thinking and Feeling.

Veterinary Ethics: Dogs Must Get the Very Best Care Possible.

A Veterinarian's Stories of Love, Loss, and Hope.

Veterinary Ethics: Life & Death Decisions in the Real World. (Trying to do the "right" thing when animals are suffering can be very difficult.)

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