Faculteit Dierengeneeskunde

In a series of interviews with researchers of Utrecht University, Utrecht Medical Center or other ULS-partners, we want to give more insight into current developments in the replacement, reduction and refinement of laboratory animal experimentation within these research facilities.

March 2016

Replacing and reducing laboratory animal use in veterinary education 

Instead of using laboratory animals in education, several opportunities to replace and reduce laboratory animal use are available at the department of Clinical Sciences of Companion Animals, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht University. Animal carcasses are provided through the animal donor codicil or organs via offal, both offering good alternatives in the education of future veterinarians and post academic training courses.

Before veterinary students are able to correctly provide medical care and diagnose patients, they need to gain a lot of practical skills. Especially important in this respect, is the opportunity for students to practice and master surgical skills before real-life patients are offered to them, according to dr. Ronald Corbee, laboratory animal coordinator and clinician for clinical nutrition at the department of Clinical Sciences of Companion Animals in Utrecht. The students need to practice their skills under supervision of a veterinarian or specialist in several clinical practical courses. This occurs before they are allowed to assist in the operation room in the University Clinic of Companion Animals or in veterinary practices in the 5th study year, under guidance of surgeons. In the whole learning process, several methods to replace and reduce laboratory animals are used.  
Two Skills Lab examples, left: venipuncture and right: synthetic model of dog ovariectomy

Skills Lab example 3. Placing an esophageal feeding tube

Surgical training alternatives

To refine their surgical techniques and to replace the use of laboratory and companion animals, students are given the opportunity to practice with synthetic training models, specifically designed for practicing basic surgical skills, like suturing or taking blood samples (see three examples of models in pictures above). These alternative animal models are part of the surgical skills lab1, initiated in 2010 at the faculty. The models are relatively inexpensive to produce, easily renewable and attractive to use. Besides, the skills lab offers students the opportunity to practice in a stress-free learning environment, also independent of scheduled practicals. A recent questionnaire showed that students really appreciate this kind of learning environment, useful for independent skills training1.


However, for some complicated but important surgical procedures, real-life animals are preferred, but not easy to obtain. The traditional ways of obtaining laboratory animals for education are expensive and ethically not always acceptable. Therefore, small surplus laboratory animals are used, provided by the Central Laboratory Animal Research Facility. Organs or other body parts of farm animals are offered by offal of slaughterhouses. Next to this, several plastic models for anatomy courses are developed when deceased, but still “warm” animals are available (for example by the Animal Donor Codicil, see below). Plastic models can be preserved for many years. These efficient measures are reducing the need on laboratory animals in veterinary education.

Improved animal welfare

In the last couple of years, several training procedures on animals have been improved for animal welfare, by not practicing operations under anesthesia anymore, but on deceased animals. For example, to practice rat orchiectomy, students used to handle anesthetized live animals. Since last year, they are practicing this surgical procedure on deceased rats. Placing air sac breathing tubes in doves also used to be conducted in live animals, but can be practiced perfectly in deceased doves as well. Rabbits and guinea pigs are used to practice dental procedures.
Last but not least, to encounter the need of animal carcasses in several veterinary courses, the Animal Donor Codicil has been initiated.

Replacement: Animal Donor Codicil

Companion animals necessary to practice basic surgical procedures are provided by the veterinary practices taking part in the Animal Donor Codicil. In collaboration with, and subsidized by, the Dutch Society for the Replacement of Animal Testing (Proefdiervrij), the Animal Donor Codicil has been started in 20102. The Animal Donor Codicil has been initiated to replace the use of laboratory animals and to encounter the need of more animal carcasses in anatomy courses of veterinary education at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. At the moment, 74 veterinary practices are taking part and offer pet owners the possibility to donate their deceased pet to the Utrecht University. In 2015, a total of 521 deceased animals were provided through the Animal Donor Codicil and 438 of them were used in courses for future veterinarians or post academic surgical training courses (see table below for specific species).

Dog   159  122
Cat  124  157 
Rat  82  68 
Dove  120  42 
Guinea-Pig  36  25 
Rabbit   - 24 
 TOTAL 521  438 

The number of animals provided by the animal donor codicil (1) and used in education (2) in 2015 at the department of Clinical Sciences of Companion Animals, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht University.

Each animal carcass is always used in multiple clinical trainings. For example, students are observing dog anatomy during two years of their study with the same dog carcass in several practical classes, under supervision of a specialist or veterinarian. 

Sufficient animal carcasses have been provided by the Animal Donor Codicil in 2015. However, to make plastic models, the necessity of still “warm” (and heparinized before euthanized) animals remains. Dr. Corbee hopes that the number of these ”warm” -heparinized before euthanized- animals offered through the Animal Donor Codicil will increase in the coming years. This will reduce the number of laboratory animals that are used for educational purposes even more. In the meantime, the department keeps working on improving animal welfare and minimizing the use of laboratory animals in education wherever possible.

1: Read more here in the online presentation of dr. Nimwegen.
2: Read more on the website of Proefdiervrij.