3Rs Stimulus Fund: Plastinates reduce use of laboratory animals

1 year ago

Jeffrey de Gier is a clinician, instructor and portfolio holder of the department of Clinical Sciences of the faculty of Veterinary Medicine. He was part of a team that managed to acquire a soft plastinate of a bitch for the faculty’s Skills Lab. This would not have been possible without the support of the 3Rs Stimulus Fund.

What were you envisaging with this project?

Over the course of their studies, Veterinary Medicine students have to learn many different skills as part of performing examinations on animals. In our clinic, we do this with animal patients, as long as their welfare is not an issue. For example, examining a bitch’s reproductive organs can partly be done externally, without causing the dog any discomfort.

For the internal exam, we insert a speculum about 1.5 cm in diameter and 20 cm long. Several years ago, we realised that using the same dogs all the time for this examination was too hard on them. So we decided that only a few of our 230 students would be allowed to do this exam on the beagles in our clinic. We wondered how we could find another way to teach this technique, without using live animals, that would approximate working with a live dog’s body as closely as possible.

What alternative to living dogs did you find?

We were looking for a model that was as similar as possible to the anatomy of the living animal. Deceased animals can be plastinated in order to obtain a model that can sustainably be used for teaching purposes. However, plastinates like these are completely hard: they look just great, but they are not suitable for clinical examinations like ours, for which the tissue must be softer. In the meantime, a colleague in Anatomy had developed a technique for soft plastination, which makes a durable model that also maintains the characteristics of the tissues. He’d already done this successfully on smaller animals, like rats. The task was now to do this with a much larger animal. This required not only a lot of skill but additional equipment.

Within our faculty, we’ve been working hard to reduce animal testing for a long time. But our finances are limited. So it’s really great that the 3Rs Stimulus Fund encourages initiatives like these. The grant is much more than just a helping hand; we probably couldn’t have got the splendid model that is now in our Skills Lab without it.

What’s the educational value of this model?

We’re creating more and more clarity in the steps students have to take in acquiring examination skills. They start by studying anatomy in the book, and then they watch instructional videos as part of an e-module.

During the classical practicums we now use a few silicone dogs with removable organs. We also demonstrate how to do procedures with living animals for the students. But now, before they take the step to examining the living dog themselves, they can practice individually and in their own time in the Skills Lab with a 100% immobile model: the hindquarters taken from a dead bitch, with real fur that feels soft, and whose reproductive organs are flexible. Being able to practise like this gives the students much more self-confidence. And of course it only improves the safety and wellbeing of patients in our clinic and in veterinary practices elsewhere.

Is this project about reducing numbers of laboratory animals or replacing them? 
‘Replacing’ implies that one day we won’t be using living animals in our instruction, which isn’t the case. We’re reducing our use of them. And you might even ask if the term ‘laboratory animals’ is the most suitable way to describe our animals, given how they’re treated within our faculty.

For example, almost all of our beagles are bred, born and brought up here. From their birth, they’ve been involved with students. A group of about ten students temporarily adopts the mother dog, and cares for her 24/7 around the time of the birth and while the puppies are little, also with things like a WhatsApp group and a webcam. The pups become properly socialised this way, and as a result the dogs are usually happy being around students – when they undergo a physical examination they get stroked and cuddled for an hour and a half, and receive a treat. It might be better for us to call them clinic animals or educational animals.

How do you personally feel about this?

To be honest, I’m ambivalent. When I’ve got my teacher’s hat on, I think it’s enormously important for our students to learn to do exams on living animals. At the same time, we’re trying to get away from animal experiments in our education. We already no longer do them during our bachelor’s phase. Instead of keeping animals at the clinic, you could just agree that everyone has a dog of their own that they care for at home. But we know from experience that this makes things even more complicated. There is also a big difference between the various ways animals are used here, certainly after what I’ve just explained about our ‘lab animals’. I would find it a terrible impoverishment of our veterinary medicine programme if our students never took a real animal’s pulse, felt its abdomen, looked at its teeth, etc. I dare say that our animals have it pretty good with us, and we do our best to make it so. Both our students and our patients benefit enormously with early and frequent contact with each other.