Opportunities Abound for Veterinarians to Teach Children about Animal Welfare

Humane education isn't just for the classroom; it can also be approached during routine exams.  Machine Headz/iStockphoto

June 25, 2015
by Melissa Shapiro, DVM

Typical of many veterinarians, from a very young age my only career goal was to become a veterinarian. My love for animals started soon after I learned to walk, with visits to a small farm where I could interact with the animals. As I grew up, animal welfare became one of my intense passions. Since there was no internet at the time, my HSUS membership was solely by mail. I studied each newsletter that came to me and, very early on, I became an animal advocate. Dogs languishing in puppy mills, baby harp seals being clubbed to death, whales being slaughtered--all these animals became part of my repertoire of deep concern. A picture of a dairy cow slipping on a wet slaughterhouse floor has been etched in my mind for more than four decades. Today, the internet has replaced those newsletters and has become a major vehicle for publicizing animal welfare issues, but even with Google and social media outreach, direct personal contact is probably still the most effective way to make an impression on children when it comes to the subject of animals.

The Veterinary Role in Humane Education

When I was in the eighth grade, a local veterinarian teamed up with the Boy Scouts Explorer Post program and offered a weekly veterinary hospital educational session for a group of interested students. Each week, the veterinarian had a different set of hospital cases for discussion, which he used to cover various aspects of veterinary care for dogs and cats. It was an amazing experience for a driven student like me. This veterinarian who took an interest in introducing students to the veterinary world made a lasting impact on me on many levels.

Veterinarians play a major role in their communities. We care for valued companion animals that are members of the family, as well as for farm animals in rural communities. Educating families and students is an important service that is easily incorporated into any veterinary practice. Opportunities for veterinarians to speak at career days, local animal welfare fundraisers and adoption events, and in classrooms, exist in nearly every town across the country. Veterinary hospital tours and individual meetings with children--when they bring in their own family pets for routine or sick animal care--put veterinarians in positions to educate about science, compassion, and animal welfare.

My Initiation into Humane Education

My first visit to an elementary school classroom was arranged by a client who had a new puppy and insisted that I give a talk to her child’s class. I went to the classroom armed with AVMA coloring books, my house call box, an otoscope, and a pile of radiographs. I showed the children why they should keep their dogs on a leash, their cats inside, and their rubber-band balls covered in tin foil out of their dogs’ reach. Even though I didn’t focus on animal welfare as the centerpiece of my presentation, the underlying theme of good pet care was definitely animal welfare-related. In the same era, I had other speaking gigs, including one at a private girls’ school where I brought my adopted veterinary school research dog, April, who had been made diabetic as a research subject. Her story gave me an animal welfare platform from which to discuss the plight of research dogs obtained from shelters. April accompanied me to work every day for over 13 years and served as my first education assistance dog for many of my veterinary talks.

Once my own children started nursery school, it was only natural--and also, my responsibility--to volunteer to visit their classrooms with my house call box and an education assistance dog. If the school’s policies didn’t allow live dogs in the classrooms, I used a large stuffed dog named Tommy who could be muzzled and bandaged, or we met outside where live dogs were welcome. In my “vet talks” I go through all the equipment in my house call box, do a thorough physical exam on the live or stuffed education dog, and show interesting radiographs, now easily accessible for display on a computer screen. I’ve also given ultrasound demonstrations using a portable ultrasound machine.

Animal Welfare Topics a Natural Fit

There are endless opportunities for veterinarians to inject animal welfare topics into school visits and other interactions with children. Elementary school-aged children are developmentally ready to learn about meeting the basic needs of all animals and a variety of animal welfare issues. Presenting in a way that asks students to think critically allows them to build empathy and understand the way people and animals depend on one another --and can inspire them to take action to help animals. Initially, I was concerned about centering my talks on animal welfare rather than veterinary medicine, but the two topics are intertwined. I now take the opportunity to gently include many more aspects of animal welfare when I speak to children, whether formally at a school or when I meet them while providing medical care to their family pets.

Getting Involved in Humane Education

Here are some resources and ideas to help you get started in providing humane education in your community:

Other questions about educational programs? Feel free to contact HSA at [email protected].

Animal welfare issues can be incorporated into formal talks to kids in many different contexts. Presentations at schools or in privately-offered workshops are the most direct way of addressing groups of children. This type of humane education can engage students in thoughtful discussion of many issues as they share their animal experiences with each other. The children leave with a greater understanding of where they can make a difference for animals.

A hands-on discussion of where to get a dog or cat is meaningful when students are touching one of my own rescued education assistance dogs. They all want to know what breed the dogs are and where I got them. This, of course, gives me a perfect lead-in to discuss rescuing a shelter dog, and I tell them about the millions of homeless dogs and cats in the country. My dogs serve as compelling ambassadors for shelter dogs. Other small pets, chickens, wild geese, and seagulls are generally included in these discussions, as I am in a suburban area; occasionally, larger farm animals come up as well.

Of course, classroom visits are a good place to encourage taking pets to a veterinarian for routine preventative care, not only when their pets are sick. Children are easily engaged in discussions about good husbandry practices, pet safety, toxic foods and other dangers to their pets, and about recognizing signs of illness, so they will know when their pets need to visit their veterinarian.

How to Get Involved

Reaching out to kids and drawing them in is crucial to animal welfare. Encourage compassion for all animals by arranging a visit to your local school, inviting Girl and Boy Scouts and summer camp groups for a tour of your veterinary hospital, and sending a kids’ newsletter to your clients. Veterinarians are seen as leaders in the animal care community, and can teach by setting examples of compassion for animals, and by their involvement in animal welfare causes. We must capitalize on our good reputation in order to create the next generation of animal welfare advocates.

Dr. Melissa Shapiro and Evie
Dr. Melissa Shapiro with one of her education assistance dogs, Evie, whom she adopted from Pet Matchmaker Rescue.
Dr. Melissa Shapiro

Melissa Shapiro, DVM, is a graduate of Purdue University’s School of Veterinary Medicine. She did a rotating internship at the Animal Medical Center in New York City, and a residency in Small Animal Internal Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School. She worked in a number of small animal practices before opening the Visiting Vet Service in 1991. Realizing that house calls are particularly beneficial to her geriatric patients, in 2013 Dr. Shapiro created Your Senior Pet's Vet, a special mobile service dedicated to providing the highest level of veterinary care to senior and special needs dogs and cats in the comfort of their own homes in lower Fairfield County, Conn.