Nowadays, animal welfare is seen as a ‘common good’ and, as such, as a shared responsibility and an ethical obligation [1
]. It matters to humans as much as to the animals themselves, and is a key concept for reaching the United Nations sustainable development goals [1
]. Animal welfare is a multidimensional concept, composed of scientific, ethical and legal dimensions [3
]. Veterinarians do, and should, play a key role in promoting animal welfare by virtue of their scientific knowledge of animals’ wants and needs, their skills in ethical reasoning and decision-making, and their advocacy within the legal framework [4
]. To fulfil this role in promoting animal welfare, it is of the utmost importance that veterinary students, during their undergraduate studies, receive robust education on animal welfare science, ethics and law, including practical teaching and clear explanations of how this interacts with other veterinary fields such as genetics, animal health and food safety.
In 2012, given on-going scientific developments and society’s expectations in this field, the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe (FVE) partnered with the European Association of Establishments for Veterinary Education (EAEVE), which is the official accreditation authority for veterinary education establishments within Europe, to examine animal welfare in the context of European veterinary education. In 2013, both associations agreed on a model curriculum in animal welfare science, ethics and law (hereafter AWSEL) [6
]. That document adopted six Day-1 competences in AWSEL, expressed in terms of 34 learning objectives (Table 1
). This 2013 model curriculum is part of the EAEVE/FVE evaluation and accreditation system which ensures that the agreed upon benchmark educational levels are met.
In order to inform these Day-1 competences, two surveys were conducted in 2012. First, through the Animal WelfAre Research in an enlarged Europe (AWARE) Project, a survey was conducted to map the under- and post-graduate teaching of animal welfare in veterinary and animal science faculties in 26 European countries [7
]. This first survey identified considerable regional differences in terms of the amount of teaching and pedagogical approaches. It also found indications that animal welfare teaching in Europe was increasing [7
]. Next in 2012, a second survey was carried out to specifically evaluate the teaching practices in AWSEL and the support and feasibility of the draft model curriculum in European undergraduate veterinary education. This second survey which was answered by 33 veterinary faculties across Europe showed general support for the draft model curriculum. Fifty-five percent of schools did not meet the suggested model curriculum, with most respondents saying they could meet it within 5 years (unpublished data). Lack of space in the curriculum and limited financial resources (namely insufficient resources to recruit AWSEL staff) were the main impediments to implementing the AWSEL curriculum.
Seven years later, in 2019, a follow-up survey was done to assess the progress of AWSEL teaching in European veterinary schools, including whether the 2013 Model Curriculum was still able to cover the important Day-1 competences in animal welfare. This paper reports the findings from this survey and provides further reflections on the evolution of AWSEL education in Europe.
This paper described the progress made in Europe within the last seven years in terms of animal welfare science, ethics and law in veterinary undergraduate education, through a semiquantitative online survey. Although some countries were regrettably not represented (such as Austria and Hungary), we were able to collect responses from schools that represent the entire European geographic spectrum. There are both societal and professional expectations for veterinarians to provide leadership in AWSEL through actions that stimulate and contribute to public discourse, that build community trust and that support community consensus regarding appropriate animal protection, use, care and treatment [4
]. A large-scale European study showed that European citizens attach great importance to animal welfare, want more information on the conditions in which farm animals are treated, and feel the EU should promote greater awareness of animal welfare at a global level [9
]. Veterinarians should also share knowledge to promote and support welfare-focused animal care standards and practices [4
To help address these demands, in 2013 a model curriculum was devised between EAEVE, the umbrella body of, at the time, 96 European VEEs, and the FVE, the umbrella body of 44 veterinary associations from 39 European countries [6
]. This 2013 model curriculum is part of the EAEVE/FVE evaluation and accreditation system (itself accredited by ENQA [11
]) which has been running for well over a decade to ensure that veterinary students are appropriately trained for the labour market as soon as they graduate (the so-called Day-1 competences). Animal welfare Day-1 competences were also assessed and evaluated.
The results of our survey showed that the teaching of AWSEL has increased across the board, meaning that either European VEEs have responded to the growing societal needs and concerns pertaining to animal welfare and/or that welfare is more and more internally embedded in the profession, and that this is reflected in the curriculum. In terms of coverage of the Day-1 competencies, the results represent a substantial improvement from those in 2013, when more than half (55.2%) of VEEs had not met the Day-1 competences. At that time, 63.6% of the 55.2% VEEs not yet meeting the Day-1 competences thought they could meet them within the next 5 years, which is in line with the results from the present survey. In 2019, around one quarter of the 59% of European VEEs that answered the survey still only partially met the 2013 Day-1 competencies, and no information was obtained from 41% of the Veterinary Schools in Europe. This indicates the need for further efforts, both from the EAEVE and individual veterinary schools, to ensure that all Day-1 competences in the field of AWSEL are included in the curriculum as soon as possible.
In the teaching of animal welfare, ethics fares worse than animal welfare science and law, since 37% of VEEs only partially met or did not meet the Day-1 competencies. It is not surprising that animal welfare science, which has evolved substantially over the years, is more emphasised than the teaching of ethics [8
]. A qualitative study at three European VEEs showed that ethics in veterinary education is a complex, multidimensional subject, composed of a range of teaching topics that might not seem to be closely connected to veterinary science [12
]. This may make it difficult to explicitly define the teaching of animal welfare ethics, as the views for which course contents are best suited for veterinary students might differ. Furthermore, incorporating ethics into the education of health professionals often involves attitudinal competencies, namely through the transmission of desirable moral behaviours, or of decision-making skills, which require student-centred approaches to teaching [13
]. The diversity of values regarding the moral status of animals, within and amongst European countries, and therefore differences in specific (not European) national regulations (e.g., bullfighting, gavaging geese for foie gras) may represent additional challenges to the establishment of a common curriculum in animal welfare ethics and law.
Reviewing the Day-1 competences, the vast majority of respondents found that those adopted in 2013 were still valid today, although some suggestions for improvements were made. It was deemed to be important that the differing views of stakeholders should be more prominently acknowledged. The use of ethical frameworks and theories, referred to as “ethical views on animals” in the 2013 model curriculum (point 25), was also emphasised, as it can help to reconcile veterinarians’ primary duty to safeguard the welfare of animals under their care while taking into consideration the views of society and the relevant stakeholders (e.g., farmers, animal owners). Secondly, the promotion of positive states of animal welfare, i.e., increasing quality of life through positive affective experiences [14
], was seen as a topic of utmost importance. This was reflected in the increasing number of VEEs who covered this topic in their curriculum in 2019 (98%) compared with 2012 (59%). It was also felt that the amount of curriculum covering the relationship between preventive medicine (better housing, management and preventive health care) and animal welfare (in relation to reduced use of antibiotics) should be increased.
Other areas where AWSEL could contribute to more comprehensive and sympathetic veterinary contributions are shown in Table 4
The number of obligatory and elective hours varied considerably between teaching establishments. This is not surprising, as it is often not easy to calculate the exact number of hours, as the teaching is spread over several subjects (e.g., a specific AWSEL course, veterinary public health, clinical classes, etc). Furthermore, some teaching is done in lecture style, while other faculties include practical, problem solving group seminars, group work, staged assignments or self-study. Animal welfare electives were only available in about half of the faculties (N = 30). While not possible in this study, it would have been interesting to compare the number of AWSEL teaching hours with the hours comprising the global curriculum, or relative to those dedicated to other subjects.
The basic skills and knowledge required to become a veterinarian have increased over the past five decades, with an increased focus on social skills and problem-oriented learning [15
]; therefore, finding the time to teach AWSEL within the curriculum is not easy. This is not only true for Europe, but also for other parts of the world [16
]. It is important that sufficient weight be attached to AWSEL subjects, and that they are not just taught, but also that students’ knowledge is assessed, to ensure that they are a meaningful part of the Day 1 competences [18
]. Core subjects carry the advantage of being formally evaluated, whereas electives, although they can be very stimulating, may not convey the importance of the breadth of knowledge that is needed. In addition, areas of ethics to be applied in the daily execution of veterinary activities should be inculcated throughout the preclinical and clinical years. One cannot practise good veterinary medicine without practising good ethics and law. As reported in one publication, “insufficiently mature ethical reasoning or a lack of veterinary ethical sensitivity can lead to an inability or difficulty in speaking up about concerns with clients and ultimately, failure in their advice to clients and in their duty of care to animals, leading to poor animal welfare outcomes
The FVE European Veterinary Survey 2018 showed that veterinarians across Europe broadly agreed that the future development and sustainability of the animal sector depends upon animal welfare, under the influence of societal pressure [20
]. The greater importance of animal welfare education, compared with other key veterinary subjects, in European VEEs (cf. Figure 3
) mirrors the concerns of European veterinarians regarding animal welfare as a prominent future veterinary challenge. More and more specific functions require dedicated animal welfare knowledge and training, such as every slaughterhouse requiring, according to EU legislation, a dedicated Animal Welfare Officer [21
], research establishments needing a ‘designated veterinarian’ to carry out animal experiments [22
], and dedicated animal welfare training for official veterinary officers [10
]. The European Commission ‘Farm to Fork strategy’ calls for a shift towards more sustainable food systems, bringing environmental, health and social benefits, including better animal welfare, to improve animal health and food quality, to reduce the need for medication, and to preserve biodiversity. “It is also clear that citizens want this
.”, the strategy says [23
Common and shared animal welfare undergraduate curricula have also been suggested by North-American, Australian and New Zealand veterinary schools [24
]. The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) [10
] and the animal welfare NGO World Animal Protection [26
] have long promoted the teaching of animal welfare. As with many other areas of veterinary education, there is an opportunity to gain further knowledge through specialisation and postgraduate qualifications. This can also be done through specialised study at the European College of Animal Welfare and Behavioural Medicine (ECAWBM). The AWSEL speciality was recognised in 2011 by the European Board of Veterinary Specialisation (EBVS) and has grown to, at present, more than 120 veterinary specialists [27
]. Similar veterinary specialisation colleges exist in North-America [28
], Australia and New Zealand. This is important, as AWSEL is a global common good, and animals and animal products are increasingly moved around the world.
Some limitations of the current study should be mentioned. The response rate, although relatively high for a web-survey, may reflect the views of those schools that are more proactive in promoting the teaching of AWSEL. In addition, the limited overlap between the schools who replied to both 2012 and 2019 surveys hindered more meaningful comparisons that would have provided a picture of the evolution of AWSEL teaching at the national or regional levels. The anonymity requirements also prevented a more detailed description of participant schools. Hence, the picture of AWSEL European veterinary education presented here may not be totally accurate. Finally, the survey was designed to gather evidence from educators and deans, but its results do not shed light on the actual AWSEL competencies acquired by students, or on their opinions regarding the teaching of AWSEL at their faculties. Additional in-depth educational studies at a regional level, and also aimed at students, are therefore warranted.