The dog greeted the spring day with customary enthusiasm. She was excited to leave her routine to receive the extra attentions of her caretakers -- at least for as long as she was conscious. Tethered to an operating table -- supine with belly exposed and deeply asleep -- it may have been more attention than the dog ever knew as an unwanted pet.
A team of medical students monitored her blood pressure, heart rate and respiration while conducting heart procedures. When their lessons were done, the dog received the last of their attentions -- a drug that ended her life.
But the moral question over whether it's really necessary to use live animals to teach medical students human physiology has continued to rage as animal activists have agitated in the last few months in Colorado. The target of their protests is the University of Colorado School of Health Sciences, which continues to utilize dog labs to teach students how to be doctors.
"The school is resistant to change because they're scared," said Don Hanley, a campus and statewide protest organizer with Rocky Mountain Animal Defense. "If they agree to compromise on this or any vivisection issue, they're afraid they'll have to give in on all similar animal use."
Hanley believes that dog labs are simply wrong, archaic and unnecessary. "If they were essential," he said, "all medical schools would use them."
About 40 percent of U.S. medical schools use animals to illustrate surgical, pharmacological or physiological principles.
CU buys unwanted dogs from a government-approved vendor for five physiology laboratories given each spring quarter to first-year students.
Groups of four to six students are assigned a large (40 to 60 pounds) mixed-breed dog on which they conduct simple heart and renal procedures and blood analysis. The animals -- 72 of them this year -- are anesthetized before procedures and euthanized afterward.
Dr. Bruce Wallace, professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, argues that his dog labs are an important means for preparing students to practice medicine.
It's an important step in learning how to deal with the emotional challenges of being a doctor, he says, and no other instruction method yields the same intensity and immediacy.
"Would a picture of the Grand Canyon help you learn to navigate it?" asked Wallace. "The labs are different from any other experience and one we think valuable."
Wallace conceded that more students are refusing to participate in dog labs each year, and it appears that an increasing number of medical schools are dropping labs.
A 1994 study by the Association of American Medical Colleges found most schools that discontinue dog labs do so because of the expense involved. However, four halted operations because they believed live animals were not as effective for teaching as other approaches, including computer simulations.
Colorado Springs animal rights lawyer Melinda Stoller believes that with regard to animals, human sensitivities sharpen with time. Seminal change, she said, results from hearts and minds that have been changed by knowing and interacting with animals -- but not at the end of a scalpel.
"The law runs behind social change by 10 to 20 years," she said. "It's hard to believe now, but years ago doctors didn't think infants felt pain, and routinely operated on them without anesthesia.
"Many people discredit animal rights activists as loonies but the animal cruelty laws we take for granted today exist because of people who were considered extreme at the turn of the last century."
Live-animal laboratories have been banned in the United Kingdom, and several United States medical facilities have already discontinued their animal labs.
At Harvard, Columbia, Yale and Stanford, students observe cardiac surgery on human patients after a preparatory lecture. The only thing these students miss is the experience of killing the patient after the procedure is done, according to cardiac anesthesiologist Michael D'Ambra of Massachusetts General Hospital.
Veterinary doctor Arlene Lamb of Northwest Animal Hospital said the vet school where she teaches offers alternative methods, including specially-designed biodynamic simulators with materials similar to tissue and veins.
"There's always another way," she said.
Lamb also pointed out that that the orientation and location of a dog's organs are different than humans, and that canines do not suffer strokes or heart attacks.
Springs cardiologist David Greenberg agreed that dogs have a unique ability to avoid the no. 1 human killer by creating their own collateral blood flow or bypass when coronary circulation is obstructed. But he doubts that observing human heart surgery is a viable alternative for instruction.
"Physiology is the most important thing a medical student learns," said Greenberg. "The patient on an operating table is already diseased so the student winds up learning pathophysiology, not about healthy systems."
It's a dog's life
Greenberg, whose own education included a dog lab, said without such exposure, students may not be prepared to do medical research later, which is also typically performed on animals. Greenberg said he has no problem with the labs, as long as animals are treated humanely.
But who defines humane treatment? The United States Department of Agriculture enforces the Animal Welfare Act by conducting an annual onsite visit and making sure university dogs are purchased from approved sources.
It also requires labs to invite oversight by an Animal Use and Care Committee that must include at least one vet, a scientist and an unaffiliated community member. (Notably, none of the community members currently serving CU's committee represent animal rights or welfare groups -- not even the moderate Humane Society.)
Dr. Ron Banks, the board certified University of Colorado veterinarian responsible for care of the dogs, believes his institution exceeds government standards for quality of care. Of 10,000 research institutions and teaching labs that use animals, only 627 are voluntarily accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Lab Animals. CU is one of them.
Banks and his staff provide new dogs with an initial physical followed by daily eyeballing to gauge health. The dogs live in 30 to 35 square feet concrete runs and are watered and fed once daily.
Banks said that, during the average four-week tenancy, the dogs sleep on a rest board above the cold floor and are permitted to run in the outside corridor for 20 minutes a day while pens are cleaned. Dogs are not walked and do not spend time outdoors, but neither the method or duration of exercise is regulated by the USDA.
During surgical procedures, anesthesiologists administer a barbiturate solution and continuously check heart rate and reflexes to ensure the animal remains unconscious. After the procedure and before the anesthesia fades, the dog is killed with potassium chloride.
Regardless of political persuasion, the debate over the continued use of dog labs at Colorado's medical school continues to rage, in the Health and Sciences Center, outside CU's facility at 8th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard in central Denver , in the CU Chancellor and medical school dean's offices and this year, in the statehouse.
At the urging of Rocky Mountain Animal Defense, state Rep. Tom Plant, a Democrat from Nederland, is introducing a resolution to the state assembly this week to halt state funding for dog labs.
To learn more or register your opinion:
Dr. Richard Krugman, Dean -- firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. James Shore, Chancellor -- J.Shore@UCHSC.edu
Jerry Rutledge, Regent for District 5 jrutledge@serf.UCCS.edu
Rocky Mountain Animal Defense http://www.rmad.org/ Local President: Betty Pearce 380-5566
Animal Legal Defense Fund: http://www.aldf.org
Animal Cruelty Action Line: 800/555-6517