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Veterinary Welfare Education in the United States

Kelly Arthur

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Welfare education is on the rise and there is a growing number of veterinary students with an interest in animal welfare. Some schools have taken notice and have either integrated animal welfare throughout their curriculum or have individual classes to educate students on the topic. 


In the United States there are opportunities to get involved with animal welfare but they are few and far between. Specific to breeding dog welfare, Purdue University has a project focused on the welfare of purebred dogs. In terms of broad animal welfare education, Iowa State University has a variety of formal classes and even a clinical rotation in animal welfare. Their faculty research interests are primarily large animal but the courses cover companion, livestock, and wildlife animals. Michigan State University also offers an online animal welfare course. In addition, the Animal Welfare Judging and Assessment Contest, started in 2002, continues toACAW.jpg expand including international participation.


While the importance of animal welfare in some circles is growing, it is not echoed everywhere. In talking with IPFD Board member Patricia N. Olson, DVM, PhD, a Diplomate of the American College of Animal Welfare and the American College of Theriogenologists, I learned more about gaps in our United States welfare education. Formal courses on animal welfare training are limited and some challenges still remain…

  • The American College of Animal Welfare was recently created for veterinary board certification in animal welfare. While this is a great step towards veterinarians having the formal training to lead animal welfare discussions, funded training programs at U.S. veterinary colleges have been slow to develop, making it difficult for veterinarians to obtain the education required for completion of the specialty. 
  • The American Kennel Club recently announced expanding residency program funding. This is a great step forward to advance the science/education of dog breeding.  Also important is the integration of welfare and ethical aspects on topics like dog breeding, dog behavior, cosmetic surgery, etc. in these training programs. 
  • A recent article, “Survey of animal welfare, animal behavior, and animal ethics courses in the curricula of AVMA Council of Education–accredited veterinary colleges and schools”, published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, reported that only 6 out of 30 U.S. schools offer a formal course with welfare in the title. As stated in this article, written by Chelsey Shivley, DVM, PhD, some of the schools may offer animal welfare education throughout the curriculum, rather than a specific class, but it speaks to a need for transparency in education. In addition, when the 30 schools were surveyed through the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges about the education they offered related to animal welfare, only 33% responded. Why such a low response rate? Lack of interest? 
  • Why did the Humane Society of the United States launch its own veterinary association specifically focusing on welfare? Did they feel that the emphasis on welfare was lacking elsewhere in the veterinary profession?


An article entitled "Student perspectives on animal-welfare education in American veterinary medical curricula", published in the Journal of Veterinary Medical Education in 2010, stressed the need for more animal welfare education in schools. One wonders what the progress has been since then given the more recent report cited above. In a book review on Ethics of Animal Use I wrote, I acknowledge a need for additional educational materials to be used in animal welfare education. I recommend “that veterinary and other animal science students read this book to engage in animal ethics discussions, whether or not it is included in their education as a required text.”


As I hope more students become involved in animal welfare, I would like to know other educational opportunities you have participated in, or are aware of, that broaden a veterinarian’s understanding of animal welfare. Hopefully together we can increase awareness of a growing interest for more education in this area. Please register on DogWellNet if you haven’t done so to comment below. 




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In the U.S., neutering dogs is one of the most common surgical procedures performed.  Why has the veterinary profession conducted so little prospective research to determine health benefits/risks for this surgery when performed at different ages?  Considering also differences among breeds and gender.  How does U.S. data differ from that in other countries?  

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Reading on Spay Neuter research: AKCCHF: 2013: Health Implications in Early Spay and Neuter in Dogs  <>


And Viszla - New Evidence Shows Link Between Spaying, Neutering and Cancer


What do veterinarians say to their clients who ask about spaying or neutering their pet? What do breeders tell the people who purchase pet dogs? 


Read about AKCCHF Grants related to canine reproduction...



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Time of spay and neuter was the topic of the 2015 Colorado Veterinary Medical Association Big Ideas Forum that I attended (and Dr. Hart was one of 2 speakers). Part of the debate is that veterinarians have trouble agreeing on best time of spay and neuter because research can have conflicting results...especially if you bring specific breed considerations into the mix as well.

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However ... veterinarians are advising clients on "best" time for neuter surgery.  So what is the strategy to get prospective research launched so that we have something better than our best guess? 

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As noted by the other commenters, there are many ethical issues that veterinarians face today, especially relating to canine welfare.  While the veterinary schools still have a long way to go to covering these topics in the depth necessary for veterinary students to understand the complexities involved, what about veterinarians already out there in practice?  


As a member of the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association, I must applaud the CVMA on their Big Ideas Forums (mentioned by Kelly above), which they use to explore controversial topics in the veterinary profession by bringing in speakers, often on different sides of the issue, and facilitating discussion among veterinarians and veterinary students.  More opportunities for frank conversation about difficult topics is needed, including uncovering some of the gaps in our scientific knowledge of certain topics.  

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AKC Health Foundation - an older study -

Table 1. Breeds predisposed to various disorders and

Table 2. Conditions associated with ovariohysterectomy (spay)

Table 3. Conditions associated with castration


Optimal health management of the individual dog was/is my primary concern as a dog breeder/owner. Veterinarians are a part of that picture. 


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So ... Basic question is "what are health and welfare implications across breeds and genders when neutering at different ages"?  What does a general practitioner, shelter worker, guide dog school, etc., advise based on solid science?


Here is another veterinary ethical issue >>> "How does our profession provide care to more and more pets owned by non-wealthy owners?  Plus, what are the standards of care that are based on evidence?  Quotes for routine dental cleanings now often over $1,000. 

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A friend read Kelly's post and she came back to me with questions... related to utilization of genetic tests (the connection to dog's welfare / breed management) and vet's roles in assisting clients...


1.       Is there a place that a vet can look to see what common diseases are specific to each breed?

Breed specific dog clubs? Pet insurance companies? Testing Lab's websites? Universities/Research facillities?


2.       Is there a place that a vet can look to see what health tests are available to help control those diseases?

Where would you, as a vet, go to find this information? Are vets familiar with available tests, breed specific conditions/ diseases tests?


3.       Is there a place the vet can direct their client to discuss how to utilize those test results to try to reduce the chances of producing those diseases?

Registries? Dog clubs? The dog's breeder? AVMA - European equivalents? Pet insurance companies? Testing Lab's websites?


I'm not a vet! My only response to the 3 questions my friend asked is... I believe the time vets have to spend with each client is limited.


As an aside...I never had a vet provide counsel as to which genetic testing my dogs should have or use of tests information as it related to my breed or breeding program. (I worked with what I'd consider great, knowledgable vets!)


Providing veterinary care is a business - services offered aren't free.

The veterinary ethical issue Patricia has mentioned... how do vets provide care to the growing number of non-wealthy client's pets. Routine care of pets has gotten so costly that only the wealthy (those with 100's or even 1000's of dollars of expendable income annually) can afford to keep a 'healthy' dog, let alone afford to manage a dog with chronic or acute health issues - expenses like genetic testing, elective surgeries/procedures/routine maintenance (spay/neuter, dental cleaning, nail trimming, parasite control, vaccines, annual wellness exams, medications, even food) add up so quickly - treating a dog with a 'problem' 1000's - 10's of thousands - is the reality.


I would think a dog owner's finances might have a direct bearing on where their dog was obtained and that finances impact the veterinary care options that a given owner could take advantage of - including a vet's advising the owner as to best options given knowledge of the client's ability/willingness to pay for services.







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I will weigh-in first on the spay/neuter (s/n) issue first.  As Patty has commented, we have had, for many decades in North America, very strong advice about age for elective s/n, but the guidelines were not based on particularly strong evidence.  Newer studies on retrospective, veterinary teaching hospital data are raising serious questions, but, may not really provide strong enough evidence to prompt broad-based policy changes.  Teaching hospital records generally have weak data for age-at-neuter, especially, and there may be many dogs with no information at all.  When we are not sure how representative these hospital (often referral) populations are for the larger dog population, dropping many potential subjects renders the possibility for error and bias even greater.  And the direction of any associations are very important… potential breeding animals that have, say, bad hip dysplasia test results, will likely be neutered…  but the orthopedic problem would not have been caused by the neutering.


And why is there such a dearth of prospective research in veterinary medicine?  And little focus on long term outcome evaluations?  Well, that could be the subject of several blogs and articles!  So, even though Ann has found lots of references to papers and discussions on s/n, very few, to date, have conclusive evidence across breeds and different populations. 


And, as much as owners and veterinarians are likely to focus on the individual dog, it must be remembered that s/n has presumably important implications at a population level.  In the USA, it is believed that without routine s/n, the unwanted dog problem would be much worse.  Most papers I have seen do not look at the big picture and certainly do not quantify the actual number of dogs who would be affected by problems purported to be influenced by s/n compared to the number of dogs potentially helped, or the number who might suffer if s/n guidelines were radically changed.  It might be worth pointing out that in Sweden, there have been extremely low rates of neutering, i.e. <7% of females and even lower numbers of males (data from the late ‘90s) and there is no dog-overpopulation problem.  Regardless, there is a high risk of orthopedic problems in, e.g. German Shepherd Dogs.  So, again, not a simple situation.

As Kelly has pointed out relative to several issues, it is very challenging to consider all the inputs and impacts simultaneously, but avoiding the true complexity of health and welfare issues, including the role of those pesky humans, is unlikely to fully support the dogs or their owners, in the long run.

On the issue of tools and information for veterinarians, IPFD through various programs and on is working to create just such resources.  This will best be served by increased participation across all stakeholder groups.

Thanks all for your participation.

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