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Training for a career in laboratory animal medicine
  1. Tim Morris


Tim Morris, of the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science at the University of Nottingham discusses a doctoral programme to train veterinary surgeons for a career in laboratory animal medicine. In an article on pii, Paul Shroeder discusses his experiences of the course

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AS for many speciality areas of veterinary medicine, training on the care and use of the animals that can be used in research is not covered in any depth in veterinary undergraduate education. Research may be for agricultural, basic science, ecological, medical, veterinary or zoological purposes, and the species used can also be wide-ranging, such as the smaller mammals seen in practice, amphibians, fish, domestic animals, larger farm species and even invertebrates or wild animals. Just like other animals, they need competent veterinary care, and veterinary surgeons have a vital role to provide advice and expertise on animal welfare, animal biology, behaviour and techniques such as handling and surgery.

This fascinating aspect of veterinary involvement with animals is a critical part of humane, ethical and effective research that uses animals and benefits both humans and animals.

The aim of the course is to produce research-literate clinical vets who can work effectively in the laboratory animal environment to improve animal welfare


The DVM programme in laboratory animal medicine is a three-year course leading to a postgraduate doctoral degree, awarded by the University of Nottingham. It is funded by the Wellcome Trust, which recognises the value of veterinary-trained graduates in both animal health and biomedical research. It is the only full-time course in the speciality in the UK. The aim of the course is to produce a research-literate clinical vet who can work effectively in the laboratory animal environment to improve animal welfare. Currently, there is no equivalent course within the UK and new lab animal vets, having completed a mandatory three-day course, have to learn on the job.

The first year is spent at the University of Oxford, gaining practical laboratory animal clinical experience with the biomedical services team. Tutorial-style teaching is given in all aspects of lab animal use: biology and diseases, behaviour, clinical pathology and health monitoring, the legal framework concerning animal research, genetically altered animals, farm species as research models, facility design and management, anaesthesia and analgesia, the design and conduct of research programmes, and ethics and welfare. An important element is hands-on clinical work at a large university.

Research training needs are assessed at Nottingham university, and are met by conferences, seminars and courses. Students also make site visits to other places where research animals are kept, such as breeding colonies and pharmaceutical companies.

Following selection of the area of research at the end of year 1, a critical literature review and research proposal are written, and research work proceeds through years 2 and 3, with ongoing training and clinical work. The research project is written up and presented as a thesis at the end of year 3.

The DVM course is unique in that it offers both doctoral-level research training and (unlike a PhD) formal clinical training in laboratory animal medicine to a similar level.

Further information

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Impressions of a postgraduate student

Paul Shroeder explains why he applied for the DVM in laboratory animal medicine, and discusses his experiences so far

After studying biology in London and Kiel in Germany, and then fisheries science in Aberdeen, I worked in the Falkland Islands as a fisheries biologist until 2004. During my time as a fisheries biologist I became increasingly concerned about animal welfare aspects in fisheries. I was also dissatisfied with my own depth of knowledge, especially in animal physiology, pathology and parasitology. I decided against staying on as a fisheries observer and accepted a place at vet school at the Freie Universität Berlin, where I qualified in 2008.

During my veterinary studies, I developed a particular interest in pathology, virology and internal medicine. One of the institutions I chose for the main part of my extramural studies was the Friedrich Löeffler Institut (German Federal Institute for Animal Health), where I was involved both in the everyday running of the experimental animal care facility, and in pathological and virological research at the National Reference Laboratory for Fish Disease. There I cultivated, isolated and measured the pathological effect of various strains of viral fish pathogens.

I originally wanted to remain in Germany to undertake a PhD but, as my British partner wanted to live closer to her family, I decided to move to the UK after graduating from Berlin. I started working as a veterinary officer in south Wales, also doing one day a week in small animal practice, so as not to be without clinical exposure.

When I first read about the DVM in laboratory animal medicine in 2009, I was struck by the way in which it matched many of my interests, combining aspects of biology and medicine and offering a multidisciplinary alternative to being in practice or working as a government vet. I was very excited about the opportunity to combine research and clinical training, educating ‘clinically literate researchers’ while promoting animal welfare and animal health.

I am now halfway through the first of the three years, which is dedicated to our clinical development. At the moment I am at Oxford University Veterinary Services, working through the everyday clinical caseload, while also gaining expertise in animal welfare, relevant legislation, ethics, experimental design, animal biology and ethology. Specific techniques such as anaesthesia and surgery in the context of laboratory animal medicine and research are also included.

A lot of the teaching is done by our three full-time veterinary colleagues, who have many years of clinical experience between them. Our department also includes a primate welfare zoologist (who is our academic mentor) and another zoologist with expertise in rodent behaviour.

My favourite part of this programme (and hopefully the job) is the sheer variety. In one day we may deal with a wide clinical caseload involving breeding, health screening and clinical cases, working with species ranging from mice and rats to ferrets and primates. Later in the day we might be meeting with researchers to discuss refinement of surgical techniques and then finish the day by attending a tutorial on rodent behaviour. There is no lack of eminent role models: the discipline of laboratory animal medicine includes some highly respected veterinary experts, who for me epitomise the role of the vet in this sometimes contentious field. As respected scientists in their own right as well as skilled veterinary surgeons, they have collaborated with researchers to develop and refine anaesthetic and surgical procedures, devising stress scoring systems to minimise suffering and advocating good welfare standards.

As the clinical year progresses, I am considering my options for the doctoral thesis, which will come into the second and third years of our programme. Nottingham and Oxford universities, with their enthusiastic researchers, offer many opportunities for research projects, so it is almost an embarrassment of riches. I initially wanted to work with fish but may still choose another species – there certainly is enough choice, and ferrets have become my firm favourites.

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