Frequently Asked Questions: Animal Use in Medical School Education
Q: Isn’t using animals to teach medical students about anatomy, physiology, surgery, and other topics a widely accepted and routinely used method?
A: Beginning in the early 1990s, the development and adoption of superior educational methods led to the replacement of animal use in many U.S. medical schools. That process has continued to the point that today animals are used in only a small number of medical schools.
Q: How many U.S. medical schools still use animals and how many use non-animal teaching methods?
A: Of the 126 allopathic and 28 osteopathic medical schools in the U.S., more than 90 percent have entirely eliminated the use of animals for all medical student courses as of December 2007. Almost all the remaining schools have only one or very few animal lab courses, and the number of schools still using animals continues to decline each year.
Q: Don’t medical students have to see and experiment with complex living systems in order to learn how the human body works?
A: Not necessarily, but when this is the chosen method it should be taught using humans or lifelike human simulators as teaching tools, rather than animals with different anatomy and physiology. Such human-based teaching occurs routinely in medical schools in the form of anatomy classes, observed surgeries and other patient procedures, and mentored experiences with clinical faculty. Many schools use human simulators, computer-based learning, didactic teaching, and case discussions for this purpose.
Q: What non-animal alternatives are available?
A: Excellent validated and widely adopted alternatives are available for teaching all aspects of medical education previously taught using animals. High fidelity, lifelike, and programmable human simulators are now a mainstay of medical education at many U.S. medical schools. Computer-based learning such as interactive basic science and clinical programs, including virtual reality applications, are used to teach everything from basic anatomy and physiology to complex laparoscopic surgery techniques. Didactic teaching methods, class and small-group case discussions, standardized patient exams, observed surgeries, faculty-mentored hands-on training, and many other progressive educational methods have all replaced the use of animals.
Q: Is the quality of medical school education affected by using non-animal alternatives?
A: Comparative studies show that both students and instructors prefer simulation-based education to the use of animals. Student test scores are equivalent or superior when non-animal methods are used, and student skills testing is improved by using simulation methods compared with using animals. Medical school course directors, curriculum directors, simulation center directors, and other education professionals are on record supporting animal replacement by non-animal alternatives.
Q: Isn’t it necessary to use live animals to show how the human body responds to drugs?
A: Programmable human simulators that demonstrate human responses to dozens of drugs are far better than using anesthetized animals to learn animal responses to only a few drugs. And the lessons can be repeated as needed when simulators are used. Many schools also teach drug responses by having students work with anesthesiologists during surgeries, where real-time responses in real people can be observed.
Q: Isn’t it necessary to use live animals to teach surgery techniques to medical students?
A: Many specially designed simulators are available to teach surgery skills ranging from suturing to laparoscopic surgery. Open surgery techniques are taught during surgery rotations, under the hands-on guidance of faculty and staff. In fact, the American College of Surgeons has instituted a surgery curriculum reform initiative that eliminates the use of animals even in surgery training programs. If surgeons in subspecialty training don’t need to use animals, medical students certainly don’t.
Q: Don’t graduates of schools that use animal labs become better doctors and surgeons than those trained at schools that only use non-animal methods?
A: Even schools that use animals allow students to opt out of those labs, and studies have shown that students who opt out test as well as those who participate in the labs. The highest ranked U.S. medical schools have almost all eliminated animal use, yet these schools continue to be highly ranked every year.
Q: Doesn’t the faculty know the best way to teach medical students? Why would they use animals if this wasn’t the best way to teach?
A: In general, faculties probably do know the best ways to teach medical students—and faculties in more than 90 percent of U.S. medical schools have decided that animal use is neither essential nor preferred. In other schools, reluctance to change is often based on institutional inertia, lack of knowledge or skills regarding alternatives, unwillingness of basic science instructors to learn new methods, and economic or logistical issues.
Q: Don’t medical students enjoy learning by using live animals?
A: Some do, some don’t, and some are neutral. For those who like the animal labs, it is often due to the “wow factor” of their first exposure to live anatomy and physiology. But studies show that when given the opportunity to compare the learning experiences of animal labs and simulation-based teaching, most students choose simulators as the better learning experience.
Q: Isn’t it true that when students may choose whether to attend an animal lab or opt out, most students decide to attend the lab?
A: This is generally true, but the reasons are often unfortunate. The “wow factor” of live animal dissection is attractive to some students, but most choose the animal lab because they are offered no educational alternatives, because those alternatives are badly designed afterthoughts, because there is peer group or faculty pressure, or because they fear being at a disadvantage for exams or course evaluations. Again, when allowed to compare animal labs to simulators, most students prefer simulators.
The APHIS inspection report is dated May 11, 2006.
Medical Schools in the United States, 2005-2006 in Journal of the American Medical Association 2006;296:1147-52. MCW has 811 medical students.
3 America’s Best Graduate Schools 2007 by U.S. News & World Report. Only Washington University (St. Louis) among the top 20 schools uses animals to teach physiology.
4 Information available from PCRM.
5METI HPS Web site: www.meti.com/Product_HPS.html.
6 In September 2006, PCRM sent surveys to the top 20 ranked U.S. medical schools that no longer use live animals in their undergraduate medical curricula.
7 America’s Best Graduate Schools 2007 by U.S. News & World Report. MCW is unranked in the category Top Medical Schools – Research, and is ranked 41st in the category Top Medical Schools – Primary Care.
8 The Class B Dealer: Down and Out? By Bernard Unti, Ph.D., for the Humane Society of the United States. See http://www.hsus.org/animals_in_research/general_information_on_animal_research
9 USDA Class B certificate number 41-B-0017.
10 APHIS inspection reports available from PCRM.
11 Pet Safety and Protection Act of 2005 (S. 451). See full text at
12 Data available from PCRM.