AVMA programs bring animal welfare to the forefront

Intercollegiate Animal Welfare Judging Assessment ContestThe AVMA’s 17th annual Intercollegiate Animal Welfare Judging and Assessment Contest (AWJAC) takes place next weekend, Nov. 18-19, at Iowa State University. This event offers a unique educational experience that teaches participants how to assess the welfare of different animal species across a variety of settings, including agriculture, biomedical research, companionship, and human assistance.

The contest, which is co-sponsored by Merck Animal Health, is open to veterinary students, undergraduates, graduate students and a limited number of practicing veterinarians. We talked recently with Dr. Cia Johnson, director of the AVMA’s Animal Welfare Division, who shared an inside look at the upcoming competition and other vital initiatives the AVMA is leading to advance animal welfare education and animal care in veterinary medicine.

How does AWJAC advance animal welfare and veterinary medicine?
Veterinarians, as we know, care passionately about animals and are dedicated to protecting and advancing animals’ health and welfare. But assessing an animal’s welfare can be complicated. The AWJAC competition gives students and practicing veterinarians an opportunity to work alongside animal welfare experts and learn how to apply science-based methods and ethical standards to assess animal welfare in realistic situations. The contest improves participants’ understanding of animal welfare, and that helps animals and the veterinary profession.

How does the event work?
The AWJAC curriculum relies on hypothetical virtual and live scenarios that are observed and evaluated in terms of the animals’ health and performance, affective state, and ability to engage in natural behaviors. Participants present their interpretations of which settings best support the animals’ welfare to a panel of judges. Awards are given to the highest-scoring individuals and teams in each student division.

The event is an excellent opportunity for participants to hone not only their animal welfare knowledge, but also their skills in critical thinking, reasoning and oral presentation. Another major benefit is the opportunity to connect and network with animal welfare experts, students and veterinarians from throughout North America and beyond.

Are these skills you mention – critical thinking, reasoning, and communication – the main skills utilized in animal welfare assessments?
Critical thinking and reasoning skills are key components of animal welfare assessments. Animal welfare isn’t an exact science. While an animal’s response to its situation can be measured objectively and quantifiably, the decision as to where on the continuum an animal’s welfare falls at a particular point in time can be strongly impacted by the assessor’s experiences and perspective. Multiple considerations affect each scenario, such as the setting (e.g., production facility, laboratory, home environment); attitudes, aptitudes, and skills of caretakers; and the species of the animals observed.

This is why the AWJAC curriculum focuses heavily on an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving, using both scientific knowledge and attention to the impacts of societal and personal values.

What about people who won’t be attending this year’s AWJAC? Are there ways for them to learn from the curriculum?
Animal Welfare Assessment: Working Dogs Test Your SkillsWe currently have three interactive quizzes available online that anyone can take to test their animal welfare assessment skills. These quizzes are based on scenarios used at previous AWJAC events, and provide a taste of the sorts of cases we observe and compare. You can test your skills on working horses, working dogs, and llamas on two fictional breeding farms.

Another great option for those who aren’t able to participate in the AWJAC competition is to attend the continuing education (CE) sessions presented in the animal welfare track at AVMA Convention 2018. This four-day program is being developed in conjunction with the American College of Animal Welfare and will incorporate some of the material that will be covered during this year’s AWJAC event.

We know that animal welfare education is a key priority of the AVMA’s Animal Welfare Committee and the Animal Welfare Division. What are some of the other ways the AVMA impacts veterinary education?
Currently the Animal Welfare Committee and Animal Welfare Division staff are working on model syllabi to assist veterinary colleges and faculty looking to add to their curriculum. These model syllabi will support the objectives, competencies and skills found in the model animal welfare curriculum that was recently developed and published by the AVMA’s Model Animal Welfare Curriculum Planning Group.

Anyone involved in teaching undergraduate, graduate or veterinary students should be on the lookout for these model syllabi that can help initiate or bolster your animal welfare coursework.

What are some of the other current issues in animal welfare, and what role does the AVMA play in addressing them?
Ensuring humane endings has always been a prominent area of focus for the AVMA, and for good reason: while not our favorite topic, it’s something most veterinary professionals are entrusted to provide nearly every day. We have a variety of tools and resources for veterinarians to use as they work to do their best for their patients and their clients, including client-facing brochures, and guidance documents on euthanasia and humane slaughter. We also are finalizing a guidance document on the depopulation of animals, which will be published in early 2018 and then formally presented the following November during our second Humane Endings Symposium.

Another top-of-mind issue is the use of animals in biomedical research.  In response to increasing scrutiny of the value of biomedical research that uses animals, the AVMA recently sent letters to key policymakers reiterating the AVMA’s support for the responsible use of  animal models in biomedical research. These letters also emphasized the AVMA’s ongoing and close collaboration with federal agencies to ensure that the welfare of animals used in research is protected.

How can someone learn more about the work being done by the AVMA’s Animal Welfare Committee and Animal Welfare Division?
To learn more about any of the welfare initiatives mentioned here, or to access the AVMA’s policies and resources on other animal welfare-related issues, visit avma.org/animalwelfare. You can also contact us directly with any questions or concerns by emailing animalwelfare@avma.org.

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