The Influence of Workplace Learning on
Attitudes toward Animal Welfare in
Veterinary Students
Sarah Pollard-Williams n Rebecca E. Doyle n Rafael Freire
Several studies suggest that veterinary students’ empathy for animals declines during the years spent at university,
yet the factors responsible for this change are not well understood. This study focused on the influence of workplace learning (WPL) on veterinary students’ empathy for animals. WPL comprises off-campus placements and is
common to all veterinary degree programs. A survey of 150 veterinary students at Charles Sturt University was
conducted using an established animal-empathy scale. In general, our findings supported previous studies that
empathy for animals declines between the first and fifth year and is lower in male students than in female students.
Our findings indicated that specific factors relating to WPL such as pre-clinical extramural studies and clinical
placements significantly influenced the students’ beliefs on animal welfare. The findings presented here suggest
that closer examination of the impact of WPL within the veterinary curricula is important to understanding students’
changes in empathy for animals and the development of ethical principles in veterinary education.
Key words: animal welfare, education, empathy, extramural studies, workplace learning

Previous surveys of veterinary students have suggested
that the veterinary career path is chosen early in life because of students’ early experiences with animals.1,2 Veterinary students expressed that an ‘‘interest, concern and
love’’ for animals are major factors influencing their
choice of study and career.1(p.292) About a third of veterinary undergraduates chose their career path before 12
years of age, their decision influenced by exposure to
animals as children.1,2 Despite an apparently universal
interest in animals among veterinary students, research
suggests that empathy for animals, and belief in animal
sentience, declines markedly between the early years of
a veterinary science degree and the second year after
graduation.3,4 Female veterinary students show a higher
level of empathy for animals than male students,3,4 and
this gender difference is also seen in students in different
countries.5 Any decline in empathy as a result of teaching
is of concern in a profession that aims to uphold animal
welfare.6 This is of importance because empathy for
animals has been correlated with a positive approach to
animal welfare by stock handlers, with higher empathy
levels having a direct link to better animal-welfare outcomes on farms.7
This study aims to investigate the influence of workplace learning (WPL) on veterinary students’ empathy for
animals. WPL is the preferred term at Charles Sturt University (CSU) for off-campus placements common to all
veterinary degree programs. While WPL across many

doi: 10.3138/jvme.0114-006R1

JVME 41(3) 8 2014 AAVMC

general disciplines has traditionally been viewed as ad hoc
and informal,8 more recent educational thinking regards it
as being structured, complex, and involving procedures
and routines tailored to specific situations.9 Similar to
other veterinary science programs, WPL at CSU has two
main phases: a pre-clinical animal-husbandry phase, which
involves learning on working farms, followed by clinical
practice in commercial veterinary practices external to the
university in later years. Research in medical education
suggests that the workplace environment and experience
are strong contributors to a decline in empathy,10,11 and
exposure of medical students to a hospital setting during
clinical education has also been linked to a decline in empathy.12 Likewise, the working environment has been
demonstrated to have adverse effects on the ability of
junior doctors to maintain a patient-centered approach.13
A comparison to medical education raises the possibility
that WPL within veterinary education may similarly have
an effect on empathy for animals. However, no research
has been conducted to investigate the link between WPL
and empathy in veterinary students.
Animal-welfare teaching within veterinary education
rose in prominence in the 1980s, with the first professor
of animal welfare appointed to a veterinary school in
1986.6 Animal-welfare education within the veterinary
curriculum is usually presented as a multi-disciplinary
course, which can include ethics, legislation, and socioeconomics.14 The structured curriculum usually provides
scientific evidence and ethical discussion on animal welfare.
However, during WPL, students are exposed to intensive


childhood residence.16. including WPL and undergraduate animal-welfare teaching. empathy scores were lower in students in later years of the program (GLM. Students in their first.5 years old.g. bearing in mind that many of these students would already have been exposed to farm practices before entry into the program. Wagga Wagga. Virtually all students had owned at least one kind of companion animal as a child. diet. students were surveyed using an existing questionnaire designed to measure empathy. and they were analyzed using an unbalanced generalized linear model (GLM) in GenStat 14. ‘‘I think animals can be happy’’) and their empathy with animals (e. The CSU Ethics in Human Research Committee approved the study before commencement. 45 in year 3. It is unknown if this cohort of students show a decline in empathy throughout their program as has been reported in other cohorts. To meet these aims.001) than male participants (Figure 1). Australia. so they were analyzed using non-parametric tests. Data Analysis Reverse scoring was conducted on appropriate statements so that high scores were indicative of high levels of empathy for animals and low scores were indicative of low levels of empathy for animals. F2. and membership in animal-welfare organizations). RESULTS Descriptives Surveys were completed by 61 students in year 1. Version 20b) to test whether the observed median differed significantly from zero.. That is. whereas an observed median significantly less than zero indicates that participants disagreed with the statement. and students with extensive farm experience are favored.e. The participants’ responses to these statements were presented on a 9-point scale ranging from 4 (very strongly agree) to 4 (very strongly disagree).and extensive farm practices. JVME 41(3) 8 2014 AAVMC doi: 10. METHODS Participants and Procedures Participants in this study were veterinary science students from CSU. and between 8% and 9% belonged to an animal-welfare organization.g.144 ¼ 3.0114-006R1 . and welfare-organization membership were expected to influence empathy scores but were of secondary interest and included as a covariate. and 23.7. we are also interested in comparing how these experiences complement. ‘‘Seeing animals in pain upsets me’’).a with year of study and gender as factors with interactions (GLM and F distribution is given)..3 This questionnaire asks students to agree or disagree with statements on their beliefs about the sentience of animals (e. respectively. or otherwise affect. we considered the measurement level to be sufficiently continuous to allow the use of parametric tests.. Part 1 was designed to obtain general background information and some specific details relevant to animal welfare (e.9. which suggest either empathic or non-empathic sentiments. The survey included further statements (e. Part 3 examined the importance of educational factors for students’ beliefs using four statements that the students responded to using the 254 same 9-point scale. Overall scores showed an evenly distributed variance and normality.. Average ages were 19.144 ¼ 25. Most participants’ diets included meat (97%–100%). and final year of study in 2012 were involved. gender.6. Following this analysis..18 Individual items were first analyzed using a one-sample Wilcoxon signed-rank test (using IBM SPSS Statistics.2. In general. F1.17 Scores for the individual items influencing beliefs were on the scale of 4 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree) and were not expected to be normally distributed. companion-animal ownership. The aim of this study was to examine the changes in attitude toward animals during the veterinary science degree at CSU and identify the factors. ‘‘WPL has challenged my personal beliefs on animal welfare’’) that explored the social and educational factors that shape student attitudes.3 The scale involves 25 statements about animals. third. The majority of students were female (range 70%–78% for each surveyed year) and had lived as a child (under 16 years of age) mostly on farms (57%–60%) or in regional towns (24%–33%). p < . An observed median that is not significantly different from zero indicates that participants neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement (i. an observed median significantly greater than zero indicates that participants agreed with the statement.g. Scores for empathy were summed to give an overall score of between 100 and 100. A full copy of the questionnaire can be obtained by contacting the corresponding author. and completion of them was both voluntary and anonymous. regardless of the statement. CSU’s veterinary science cohort is unusual in that students are selected on the basis of having a rural background. that affect student attitudes toward animals and their welfare. 21. and 44 in year 5. age. Place of childhood residence. which may include painful husbandry practices and the treatment of injured animals. neutral). Since the empathy scores were a sum of 25 Likert-type items. with the most common being dogs (82%–98%). Questionnaire The questionnaire was divided into three parts. While our primary aim is to determine how important these experiences are in shaping attitudes toward animals. in-class animal-welfare teaching.0.g. Part 2 measured the student’s empathy with animals using a version of the Animal Empathy Scale. Questionnaires were distributed in the classroom. Empathy Scores Female participants were found to have a higher empathy score (GLM. a Mann–Whitney test was undertaken on each item to determine if there was a significant difference in scores between male and female participants (using IBM SPSS Statistics).3138/jvme. diet.15 CSU veterinary science students therefore have considerable workplace experience on farms at the point of entry to the program.

the higher the empathy with regards to animal welfare. previous research has shown that staff opinion of management practices contributes to the attitudes of the students. though it is necessary to be aware that. and law. The higher the scores. and 5 of the veterinary science program.2. as is common in other veterinary science programs. suggesting that the practical component had more influence. F2. In support of previous findings.0114-006R1 JVME 41(3) 8 2014 AAVMC Many universities include courses on animal behavior and welfare in the first 2 years of the veterinary science degree. however. appears to be a growing concern for students.3138/jvme. and 5 The program in general influenced male and female students’ attitudes toward animal welfare (Table 1). students reported that WPL had a strong influence on their attitudes toward animals.030). the repeatedly published findings of an overall empathy decline argue strongly that animal welfare as a subject should be revisited in the veterinary curricula in later years.Figure 1: Mean e SE animal-empathy scores for male and female students in years 1. Students reported that both the courses and WPL influenced their personal beliefs on animal welfare.300). p ¼ . Social and Educational Factors Influencing Student Beliefs in Years 1. in general. ethics. in particular. animal-welfare teaching early in the program appeared to only have a weak effect on attitudes toward animals (p ¼ . doi: 10. female students had higher levels of empathy for animals than male students. Despite the majority of CSU’s students starting with considerable farm-animal experience.19 with a recent call for these courses to cover animal-welfare science. CSU selects students from rural backgrounds with considerable farm-animal experience.070). Also in agreement with other findings. 3. such courses can have a positive influence on veterinary students’ attitudes toward production animals.15 thus students who perhaps already have a fixed level of empathy. As stated earlier.22 This is the first study investigating the effect of WPL on veterinary students’ empathy and shows that WPL had significant influence on student attitudes toward animals. participants stated that WPL taught them more about animal welfare than other aspects of the program. p ¼ . academic courses on animal welfare only tended (not significantly) to influence their views on animal welfare (p ¼ . and practitioners. Along with the current results.21 It is possible that the cause of the observed decline in empathy is multifactorial. Given the early placement of animal-welfare courses in most programs. In contrast. GLM. It is possible that WPL may exert a stronger effect on students in programs that do not 255 .4 In our study. Interestingly though. Stress in veterinary students.20.3 we found that. empathy levels of students in later years of the program were lower than empathy levels of students in the early years.14 In other universities. WPL both challenged the students’ personal beliefs on animal welfare and taught them about animal welfare. DISCUSSION The results of this survey probe specific factors that influence veterinary students’ attitudes toward animal welfare and highlight some key points that pertain to curriculum design. educators. only about 25% of our participants were male. 3. and further studies could examine these causal factors.144 ¼ 1.070). There was no significant interaction between gender and year of study (gender  year interaction.

1.0 e 0. NY: IBM Corp.1 e 0.3 F ¼ 0. Vet Rec.9656004. This is the first study that investigates the role of WPL in the veterinary curriculum.doi. undertaking. UK: VSN International.32(4):438–41.24 The culture of any one particular workplace and the accepted norms within that environment (the ‘‘hidden curriculum’’) have been well recognized as a strong influence on both medical and veterinary students and are also linked to the development of professional attributes in individuals. Podberscek AL. released 2011. http://dx.1136/ vr.070 .2 . Serpell JA.2005.3 . WPL appears to have far-reaching influence on students’ attitudes toward animals and their welfare.2 . and interpreting their WPL experiences and that this should be monitored in veterinary programs.146(10):269–72.5 e 0. 2005. and many other components of a veterinary program are content-laden with information on physiological pain and stress and their management. The effect of farm WPL in early years of the degree is worthy of closer investigation as this form of production-animal WPL is common to virtually all veterinary degrees that take undergraduate students and is an important component of professional development.9 e 0.7 e 0. 0. for farm placements these are generally set in terms of stock numbers and production methods.38(1):74–83.5 F ¼ 0.doi. Medline:16421833 Paul ES. J Vet Med Educ.001 M ¼ 1.23 The decreasing empathy scores seen with increasing year of study appears to be counterintuitive to veterinary education.32(4):491–6.26 WPL can be contextual and variable. Lanyon A. plans and subsequent employment.001 M ¼ 2. IBM SPSS Statistics. Backgrounds.2 F ¼ 1. Broom DM.3138/jvme.010 M ¼ 0. and findings suggest that WPL has a significant contribution to shaping empathy for animals. Physiology.7 e 0. 2000.3138/jvme. REFERENCES 1 2 3 4 5 6 Heath TJ.40(1):17–24. 1.269. Veterinary education and students’ attitudes towards animal welfare. WPL has challenged my personal beliefs on animal welfare. Can teaching veterinary and animal-science students about animal welfare affect their attitude toward animals and human-related empathy? J Vet Med Educ. 2005. NOTES a b GenStat.25.2 .6 e 0.74(4):291–6. WPL ¼ workplace learning * Outcome of one-sample Wilcoxon signed-rank test † p values in bold are significant (p < .2 . Aust Vet J.Table 1: Responses of veterinary science students to statements on how different components of their program affected their attitudes toward animal welfare Overall response Mean e SE Statement p value † Gender effects * Mean e SE p value‡ This program has provided me with sufficient information to formulate my ideas about animal welfare.800 M ¼ male. Animal welfare education: development and prospects.0. A longitudinal study of veterinary students and recent graduates.4 e 0. Taylor N. Version 14.38. Student attitudes on animal sentience and use of animals in society. J Vet Med Educ. Factors influencing veterinary students career choices and attitudes to animals.05 e 0.3 . 1996. pharmacology. which is in line 256 with published data. Signal TD. 2.3 WPL has taught me more about animal welfare than anything else. Medline:16421824 JVME 41(3) 8 2014 AAVMC doi: 10. McCulloch S. Lynch-Blosse M. Closer examination of the impact of WPL and the tracking of students’ attitudinal changes throughout a program will be important to further detect factors driving this decline in empathy.3. J Biol Educ. As our findings show. Even with the inclusion of specific animal-welfare content in their programs. 2011. In conclusion.200 0.800 Information learnt in animal-welfare-specific courses strongly influenced my ideas of what constitutes good animal welfare.0114-006R1 .1080/ 00219266.4 e 0.4 F ¼ 1. it would appear that veterinary students undergo a hardening of attitudes that coincides with exposure to practice. This raises the challenge of effective educational integration of experiential and class-based learning about animal welfare to equip students with the ability to think critically about workplace experiences. Medline:10749039 Hazel http://dx.300 .74. http:// dx.10. Version 20.. 2005. anesthesia. We suggest that students should receive appropriate support in planning.2 e Medline:21805938 Phillips CJC. students of veterinary science demonstrated a progressive decline in animal-empathy scores with respect to animal-welfare concerns. F ¼ female. 1.doi. perhaps as a mechanism for coping with the distressing events and frequent conflicts of interest that manifest in veterinary practice.050) ‡ Outcome from Mann–Whitney test actively select for students with considerable farm-animal experience.3 M ¼ 0.146.27 and although placements may have to meet criteria.6 e 0. Hemel Hempstead.

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