Empathy decreases as students progress through veterinary education

Colombo, E. S., Pelosi, A., & Prato-Previde, E. (2016). Empathy towards animals and belief in animal-human-continuity in Italian veterinary students. Animal Welfare, 25(2), 275-286.

This study shows that animal empathy appears to decrease with veterinary education in Italian students, as fifth year students appeared less empathetic than first year students. Additionally, male students were less empathetic than females.  The fifth-year students also appeared to have a more instrumental, detached attitude to animals and have a different perception of animal-human-continuity (i.e. their similarity to humans and ability to feel and think).

Empathy and belief in animal mind and feeling are important to ensure animal welfare in the veterinary profession, and attitudes toward animals has previously been studied in veterinary students around the globe. This study was the first to investigate empathy levels of Italian veterinary students. It used the Animal Empathy Scale (AES) and the Human-Animal-Continuity Scale (HACS) to evaluate empathy and belief in human-animal-continuity in the students.  The students completed questionnaires with statements that they could agree or disagree with.  The AES contains 22 statements such as 'Many people are over affectionate towards their pets' and 'Dogs sometimes whimper and whine for no real reason'.  The HACS evaluates anthropomorphism (i.e. attributing human emotions to animals), belief in animal mind and sentience, and perception of similarity between humans and animals.  It uses 12 statements, such as 'Humans can think but animals cannot', 'Animals can fall in love', and ‘People are animals'.  The students again were scored by their agreement or disagreement with the statements, with higher scores indicating higher levels of human-animal-continuity.

Students attitudes to animals worsen as they progress through vet school

The results showed that students in fifth year scored lower than first-year students, and had a more instrumental attitude towards animals.  A reduced perception of human-animal-continuity was also noted, although the relationship was weaker (more evident in males). This raises the possibility that attitudes and empathy are impaired by vet school. Interestingly, the results also found that females were more empathetic than males.

The reason for this apparent decrease in empathy, and different attitude to the perception of an animal's ability to know, think and feel, as students progress through veterinary education is unclear.  It may reflect a coping mechanism to deal with the difficult situations and animal suffering they encounter as students and vets (similar to the apparent 'hardening' and increased cynicism in medical students and health professionals).  Or it may demonstrate a failure to educate students adequately on animal welfare, and specifically animal cognitive abilities (i.e. their ability to know and understand).

The authors conclude that although the reason for this decline in empathy throughout veterinary education is unclear it is however of concern as animal empathy is important in the veterinary profession and more research is needed in this area. A failure to recognise and address distress in sick or injured animals, will have severe animal welfare implications.

World Animal Protection’s view

The results from this study demonstrate the importance of welfare and ethical training during veterinary education. It is vital that vets have positive attitudes towards animals, understand the animal welfare implications of their work, and show compassion towards the animals they work with. As this study shows an apparent reduction in animal empathy as students progress through veterinary education, it is important that this situation is investigated further and addressed, perhaps by having a greater focus on the education of students in animal welfare and cognitive abilities, and by providing veterinary students with more emotion support.