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Knowledge and opinions of veterinary students in Italy toward animal welfare science and law
  1. D. Magnani, PhD1,
  2. N. Ferri1,
  3. A. Dalmau, PhD2 and
  4. S. Messori, PhD1
  1. 1Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale dell'Abruzzo e del Molise “G. Caporale”, Campo Boario, 64100 Teramo, Italy
  2. 2IRTA, Veïnat de Sies s/n E-17121, Monells, Girona, Spain
  1. E-mail for correspondence: diegomag18{at}yahoo.it

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Introduction

Animal welfare (AW) is an issue of growing importance in Europe, despite there being conflicting opinions on the subject (Mazas and others 2013, Dalla Villa and others 2014). The most widely accepted definition of AW comprises the state of the animal's body (e.g. concerning its fitness and health), mind (e.g. concerning its feelings and preferences), and the extent to which the animal's nature can be expressed (e.g. in relation to its natural behaviour) (Duncan and Fraser 1997). The attitude of animal users in society largely depends on the education received at an early age. Other aspects, such as the training received, personal experiences, general beliefs and philosophical ideas also influence attitudes (Broom 2005). The process by which societies adapt to increasing knowledge about the mental and physical capacities of animals and the ways in which they are affected by human activities has been described as a journey. While different countries and regions are at various stages of this journey, all societies are unified by an increasing awareness of, and concern for, AW (Mellor and Webster 2014). Pressure from the global community to make AW a fundamental part of veterinary education started more than 10 years ago (Estol 2004). During that period, the veterinary definition of AW stood in contrast to the holistic one developed by AW scientists (among whom veterinarians were only a minority); hence, questions emerged concerning the level of information of veterinary students on non-physical aspects of AW, and the possible negative consequences that this might have had on the animals themselves (Hewson 2005). As global understanding and concern for AW continues to change, the role of the veterinary community should evolve accordingly in this regard. The World Veterinary Association (WVA) takes the position that the veterinary community generally, and veterinarians individually, must maintain their commitment to AW and fulfil their duties as animal advocates and leaders in the field of welfare. In fact, the WVA supports the integration of AW and AW science into veterinary undergraduate education, elevating AW as one of the ‘day 1’ competencies for all graduate veterinarians (World Veterinary Association 2014).

The understanding of veterinary students’ attitudes toward farm AW, as well as their knowledge of the welfare impact of certain husbandry and clinical practices, is fundamental (Heleski and others 2005). In the last decade, many researchers have investigated what should be taught about AW and how (Lord and Walker 2009, Molento and Calderon 2009, Main 2010, Abood and Siegford 2012, Morton and others 2013). As indicated by Špinka (2012), there are many differences in farm AW university education and research across Europe, and this goes hand-in-hand with gaps in farm AW awareness and implementation. These differences can lead to variations in the levels of knowledge and skills and, thus, in competence for future professionals such as veterinarians. The EU-funded project AWARE drew a clear picture of AW education at the university level in Europe, providing multiple pieces of evidence that more intensive education on the welfare of farm animals is provided in north-west Europe than in any other region (Illman and others 2014). There is little information on veterinary students’ awareness and their sensitivity to AW. Relatively few articles are available in the scientific literature regarding veterinarians’ attitudes towards certain welfare issues, e.g. the use of animals in research and animal pain (Sabuncuoglu and Coban 2008). To the best of the authors’ knowledge, no published articles exist investigating the attitudes of Italian veterinary students toward farm AW.

The attitude and sensitivity of veterinarians towards welfare issues is fundamental in whichever capacity they work, be it as researchers or practitioners or in reference centres, since they set an example for the layperson and have an opportunity to improve the welfare status of animals throughout the country (Sabuncuoglu and Coban 2008). Assessing the attitudes and interest of veterinarians on AW will enable educational and training strategies to be adapted towards developing positive and respectful practices to the treatment of animals, in line with modern AW concepts.

Given the anticipated differences in the farm AW curricula between European countries, and the lack of information on AW education in southern European countries, this study aims to investigate the knowledge and interest in AW issues of Italian veterinary students. A survey was carried out in 12 veterinary schools in Italy to gather quantitative and qualitative information, assessing how students regard AW and how much they are interested and aware about AW issues. In addition, the knowledge of Italian veterinary students on EU AW legislation was investigated.

Materials and methods

Data collection

From October 2014 to January 2015, all the 13 Italian Schools of Veterinary Medicine were contacted by email and telephone by researchers of the Istituto Zooprofilattico di Abruzzo e Molise ‘G. Caporale’ (IZS), who made an appointment to distribute the questionnaire among students. This methodology was preferred to use of an online questionnaire or email distribution to improve the data collection, since a low response rate was found in previous research of this nature (see Sheehan 2004 for a review). The presence of one of the researchers in the classroom ensured that the students answered autonomously and that any issues regarding interpretation could be clarified immediately.

Twelve of the 13 faculties agreed to participate in the study. The questionnaire was administered to fourth year students. Before the survey, students were introduced to the objectives and purpose of the study and informed that the results obtained would be used for scientific and educational purposes. Student participation was voluntary and anonymous.

In Italy, veterinary academic education lasts five years, and during their last year students specialise in different areas. Fourth year students were chosen because normally, at that stage, Italian veterinary students have already approached AW topics and thus have a comparable level of knowledge.

Survey description

The questionnaire was based upon the ‘EDUCAWEL-Study on education and information activities on AW’ (DG SANTE 2016). Questions were both closed-ended and open-ended, and were divided into four sections (see online supplementary annex 1).

Section 1 consisted of five questions. The first question (Q1) was open, and asked students to provide a definition of ‘animal welfare’. For questions in the first section, students had to answer using a five-point scale, rating from null (1) to very high (5) the level of different adjectives (e.g. informed, interested). The remaining questions included self-evaluation of personal knowledge about AW (Q2), personal opinion on AW conditions for different species (Q3) and the level of concern about each one of the different species in the previous question (Q4). In addition, they were asked to indicate which information sources were available to students in relation to AW and to score their reliability on a 1 to 5 scale (Q5).

The second section concerned the EU AW legislative framework (Directives 98/58EC, 2007/43EC, 2008/119EC, 2008/120EC, and Regulations 1/2005EC and 1099/2009EC). Twenty-two closed questions (Yes/No/I don't know) aimed at investigating the students’ level of knowledge about some of the specific contents of the different pieces of legislation: the respondents were asked if a named topic was covered under one of the mentioned norms. The percentage of correct answers was used in the analysis as new variables (Q6). In addition, a question asking an opinion about the adequacy of the existing legislation on AW was included in this section; thus students were asked if they believed that these norms should be more restrictive, answering either ‘surely yes’, ‘probably yes’, ‘probably not’, ‘surely not’, or ‘I don't know’ (Q7).

The statements in the third section were designed to assess the respondents’ personal beliefs on a variety of welfare topics, such as the use of animals in particular practices. All 10 questions were answered on a 1 to 5 Likert scale, expressing the level of agreement to the statement provided (from 5 being ‘strongly agree’ to 1 being ‘strongly disagree’) (Mueller 1986). For each respondent, the average of the score provided to all questions of this section was calculated and used as a new variable (Q8).

The last section aimed to obtain basic information about the students, including their age, sex, city of residence (including size, i.e. city vs. town, and geographical area, i.e. south, centre or north) and university attended. Lastly, some additional questions about the students’ previous experiences with, for example, the ownership of pets and any links to farm environments (having a farmer as family member, their area of upbringing [urban, rural]) were included. This section allowed for a more detailed profile of the students.

Statistical analysis

To facilitate the analysis of the answers to the open question (Q1), the most cited words and their synonymous were collected and assigned to one or more related concepts, as was done for free text questions in previous studies (Berg 2001, Heleski and others 2005). The effect of the student profile on the first and second sections (Q1 to Q7) was analysed using a multinomial PROC GENMOD of SAS with the statistical significance set at P<0.05.

Correlations between Q2, Q3, Q4 and Q8 were calculated using the Spearman rank correlation coefficient (rs); the probability of rejecting the null hypothesis was set at 0.001.

Since the datasets were not parametric, the Friedman test (P<0.001) was used to compare the average interest of student (Q3) and AW level (Q4) for different species. Finally, the Wilcoxon signed rank test was used for species pair comparison (P<0.05).

Results

When the study was implemented, the average number of students per class was 56 and more than 60 per cent of the total were interviewed. A total of 441 students (out of 685) participated in the survey (Table 1); 68 per cent of the sample were female, and the average age was 24 years old (±1.8 sd). Additional profile information is presented in Table 2.

TABLE 1:

Numbers of attending and interviewed students for each faculty and the academic year of animal welfare teaching

TABLE 2:

Students’ profile per each faculty. Information concerning gender, geographical provenance, ownership of pets, presence of a farmer among the relatives and past living experience in a rural area

Ninety-six percent (n=416) of the students answered the open question ‘What do you think animal welfare means?’ (Q1). The word ‘Behaviour’ was mentioned by 23 per cent of the sample, followed by ‘Psychophysical equilibrium’ (22 per cent), ‘Respect’ (19 per cent) and ‘Health’ (17 per cent). Some students (11 per cent) mentioned the concept of ‘Five Freedoms’. AW was related to ‘Husbandry practices’ for 10 per cent of the interviewees, whereas few of them referred to legislative (2 per cent) or genetic manipulation (0.6 per cent) issues (Fig 1). No differences based on the students’ personal profile emerged for frequency of use of words.

FIG 1:

Wordcloud of the most mentioned words used by students to define animal welfare. The size of the font reflects the frequency of the words. Image created with Tagul software (https://tagul.com/cloud/1).

Most students self-evaluated their personal knowledge on AW (Q2) as 3 (47 per cent) and 4 (38 per cent). Lower percentages were obtained for other scores (2: 11 per cent; 5: 3.5 per cent; 1: 0.5 per cent).

When considering the interest and concern for the welfare of different species, significant differences were found between species, with dogs/cats and laying hens as extremes in both questions. Considering all species, the welfare conditions of the animals were perceived as having an average score of 2.72 while the students’ concern about them averaged 3.76. The answer distribution to questions Q3 and Q4 and results from the Wilcoxon signed rank test are reported in Figs 2 and 3.

FIG 2:

Distribution of answers expressed in percentage for each Likert scale score (1=very low, 5=very high) to the question ‘For each of the following species, what do you think the on-farm welfare level is?’ (Q3). Species were compared with Wilcoxon signed rank test; bars with the same letter do not differ.

FIG 3:

Distribution of answers expressed in percentage for each Likert scale score (1=no interest, 5=high interest) to the question ‘How much are you interested about the welfare of each of the following species?’ (Q4). Species were compared with Wilcoxon signed rank test; bars with the same letter do not differ.

The most common information sources (Q5) are represented in Fig 4. University is both the first information source for 82 per cent of sample and the one having the highest credibility score (4.4), followed by the web (35 per cent, credibility score 2.9) and television (22 per cent, credibility score 2.4). Information sources such as scientific papers, books and veterinarians had credibility scores above 3.5, but were mentioned by less than 20 per cent of respondents.

FIG 4:

Wordcloud of the most frequently referred source from which students get/receive information on animal welfare. The size of the font reflects the frequency of the words. Image created with Tagul software (https://tagul.com/cloud/1).

Regarding knowledge about AW legislation (Q6), the rate of correct answers was 51 per cent. The distribution of answers about the need for stricter legislation on AW (Q7) was 35 per cent ‘surely yes’, 50 per cent ‘probably yes’, 10 per cent ‘probably no’, 0.3 per cent ‘surely no’, and 4.7 per cent ‘I don't know’.

Respondents’ personal beliefs about the use of animals in particular practices (Q8) were assessed on an average tolerance score of 3.15. A list of all practices with relative scores is reported in Table 3. The less tolerated practices were ‘To test cosmetics or household products on animals’ and ‘To use animals for fur production’. On the other hand, the use of animals ‘To observe their behaviour’, ‘To improve human health’ and ‘To produce food’ all had the highest scores and were viewed as more acceptable practices to most of the interviewees.

TABLE 3:

Mean values of five-point (±sd) scale for questions regarding students’ personal beliefs on the use of animals in particular practices (see question 8 in online supplementary annex 1)

Results from PROC GENMOD showed that the percentage of correct answers to questions about EU AW legislation (Q6) was influenced by area of provenance (n=441, χ2= 3.83, d.f.=2, P=0.01), with a significant difference between the Central and Northern areas, the correct answer rate being 51.6 per cent and 48.7 per cent, respectively (Southern area 50.8 per cent). A significant difference (n=441, χ2= 4.12, d.f.=1, P=0.04) for sex in regard to personal beliefs on AW (Q8) was found, with males having an higher tolerance score for the use of animals as compared to females (3.31 v 2.98). No other significant differences in answering were found in relation to the students’ profiles.

Only the Spearman correlation between Q3 and Q8 was found to be significant (P=0.0007, rs=0.4), showing that those students who perceived the level of AW in farms as being higher had a greater tolerance for ‘animal use’.

Discussion

The author's believe this study represents the first attempt to investigate the knowledge and opinions of veterinary students toward AW science and law at the national level in Italy. The results could prove very useful for adapting educational and training strategies towards the development of positive and respectful practices for the treatment of animals, in line with modern AW concepts.

The response rate of the students in the present study was higher (64 per cent) than that of previous research studies carried out in other countries on similar topics and with similar targets (i.e. Heleski and others 2004, 31 per cent; Heleski and others 2005, 45 per cent). The dissemination strategy of those studies was email based. Email surveys tend to have a response rate of 37 per cent (see review by Connelly and others 2003) and it has been argued previously that this might not be a good way to reach the student population (Heleski and others 2005). Conversely, our results suggest that the ‘on field’ survey is a more efficient strategy to reach university students. The higher female/male ratio in our study sample is just a reflection of the situation in the Italian veterinary faculties, where up to 70 per cent of attending students are female (FNOVI 2014). This is also consistent with a growing trend toward greater female entry into the veterinary profession worldwide (Irvine and Vermilya 2010).

In a recent report by the European Commission (EC) (DG SANTE 2016) it was highlighted that AW is not generally seen as something intrinsic to the animal but as something related to how animals are treated. In that study, graduate students (of ages similar to the veterinary students in the current study) from the communication, education, economics and engineering faculties of Italian universities answered the question ‘What do you think animal welfare means?’ using words related mainly to the concept of ‘feeding’, ‘housing’ and ‘natural condition’, tending to identify welfare with the animals’ natural needs in their natural environment, as was found in previous studies on consumers and politicians (Carenzi and Verga 2009). Our study showed that Italian veterinary students were more focused on the concepts of ‘respect’ (some respondents also mentioned the concept of ‘Five Freedoms’), ‘health’ and ‘absence of stress’ compared to their peers in the EC study. However, it is interesting to note that the word ‘behaviour’ was the most mentioned in both studies. Veterinary students may know that behaviour represents the first response to environmental stimuli, and that it provides the first picture of the coping success of an organism towards stressors (Broom 1986). On the other hand, this might be due to the students linking AW to behaviour since welfare was mainly taught in the framework of ethology courses (Table 1). A study on ethics teaching in European veterinary schools explored the relationship between the concept of welfare and ethics (Magalhães-Sant'Ana, 2014). From a sample of 17 educators involved in the teaching of veterinary ethics in three European veterinary schools, AW related topics that were mentioned as part of the teaching of ethics included: the five freedoms, quality of life, animal suffering, and animal pain. These topics resemble the concept used by Italian veterinary students to define AW itself. We agree with Magalhães-Sant'Ana in underlining the importance of defining AW before having ethical discussions about the involvement of animals. Some authors strongly suggest that veterinary ethics should be taught as part of the AW curriculum (Main 2010, Morton and others 2013); however, the link between the concept of welfare and ethics seems to be essential. For example, ‘ethical awareness’ can be achieved by introducing topics such as animal suffering and quality of life (Magalhães-Sant'Ana and others 2014) as belonging to the definition of AW, but an ethical approach could help in deciding whether euthanasing an animal is not only an AW issue (Yeates and Main 2011). From our results, Italian veterinary students appear quite confident with their personal knowledge about AW, especially in the north of the country. They answered that the university itself represents the most used and reliable source of information about AW. However, veterinary students get more information on this issue from the web and television than from scientific papers, books or veterinary professionals. Comparing these results with those from EDUCAWEL (DG SANTE 2016), which showed that respondents felt poorly informed on AW and that the quality of the information from television and internet was considered extremely poor, the preference of Italian veterinary students for web and television as sources of information on AW seems to be contradictory. However, veterinary students probably feel that AW information on the web falls into their field of expertise, so they feel confident in managing this type of information that is faster and easier to navigate than those provided by books, papers or established professionals. An interesting question for further studies could be to know which kind of websites veterinary and non-veterinary students are visiting to obtain information on AW. Taking into account the importance given to the university as a source of information, it is clear that welfare science, ethics, and law should be an integral part of the veterinary curriculum, providing students with the best information channel.

Our results about the opinions on animal production systems suggest an interesting pattern regarding the perception that Italian veterinary students have concerning the welfare status of the various livestock species. Respondents considered laying hens and broilers as having the lowest standard of welfare, followed by pigs and rabbits. Interestingly, this same opinion was obtained in an earlier study carried out in animal science faculties in the USA (Heleski and others 2004) and in a recent survey of Italian consumers (Di Pasquale and others 2014). Similar results were also found in Croatia, where a study on the attitudes of veterinary students toward farm AW reported that students believed that the welfare of cattle and pigs was less compromised than that of poultry (Ostović and others 2016). One plausible explanation for this pattern is that public perception of livestock well-being is inversely related to the level of intensification of husbandry practices (Marìa 2006).

Interestingly, even though poultry, pigs and rabbits were considered as the species having lower levels of AW, the concerns of Italian veterinary students appear to focus mostly on companion animals (dogs and cats) and ruminants. The major concern about dogs and cats is in accordance with the results from a previous survey, which reported that veterinary students were more likely to believe that dogs and cats have higher cognitive abilities compared to farm animals (Levine and others 2005). This opinion may justify the main interest about pet welfare. However, as suggested by the authors, differences in students’ perception of companion-animal and farm-animal emotional and cognitive abilities could also depend on a lack of awareness of the current state of scientific knowledge about the cognitive and emotional abilities of domestic species. In addition, a study on secondary school and university students’ attitudes towards AW found that the items related to pets were better rated than those related to farm animals (Mazas and others 2013). Our results suggest that this may also be true for veterinary students. In addition, the vast majority of our sample (91 per cent) owned a dog or cat while only 11 per cent were related to the farming environment, making the link to pets stronger. The results concerning cattle contradicted the findings of the DG SANTE study (2016) where students from other faculties were only moderately concerned by this species. It is possible that the different perception of veterinary students toward cattle welfare is due to the longer time that the students spend on a cattle farm as compared, for example, to a chicken farm, as also suggested by Ostović and others (2016). For this reason, cows are probably perceived as being more sentient than other species (Paul and Podberscek 2000, Levine and others 2005). Also, different moral standards exist for different animal species (Te Velde and others 2002), and that the interest toward the different species increases with phylogenetic proximity to the human species (Franco and Olsson 2014).

One report indicated that, in general, education specifically relating to AW within North American universities is limited (Siegford and others 2005). Results from a US survey on attitudes toward farm AW revealed that even veterinary schools are not fully aware of modern production practices that may be associated with welfare concerns (Heleski and others 2005). The EDUCAWEL study (DG SANTE 2016) highlighted that the knowledge of Italian university students about existing European and national legislation on AW was very scarce (<40 per cent of answers were correct). Results from our study show that, although the average knowledge of veterinary students is higher on the issue, there is much room for improvement. In addition, this relatively low level of familiarity could have biased the students’ opinion regarding the improvement of AW rules in Italy (Q7), where 60 per cent of the sample asked for more restrictive rules, without knowing in detail the requirements of the legislation in place. The study of the EU legislative framework should be promoted in veterinary faculties, taking into consideration both the principal EU legislation directly related to AW, and other laws that relate to animal use and reflect society's view of animals (e.g. pets as property, protected species, and wild animals) (Main and others 2005).

In agreement with other relevant studies (Zelezny and Schultz 2000, Mazas and others 2013), our results showed that female students were less tolerant to the use of animals for different purposes, and more sensitive toward AW issues. The presence of sex differences is consistent with the psychological literature, which demonstrates that, in general, females tend to be more empathetic than males towards both humans and other animals (Signal and Taylor 2007, Ellingsen and others 2010), and show greater concern for their welfare and suffering than males (Serpell 2004). Considering the whole sample in this study, the highest level of agreement was encountered for the use of animals for food production (score of 4 out of 5). Interestingly, a similar result was found for the general public in the EDUCAWEL study (mean value of 7 in a scale from 1 to 10) (DG SANTE 2016). The influence of education received in adult age is still debated. A recent study suggested that regular contact with animals inures agricultural students to animal issues, whereas students in the humanities and arts, who have less contact with farm animals, have greater concern (Phillips 2014). On the other hand, another study found no differences in principled reasoning on issues of animal ethics when comparing students in non-animal related disciplines (human medicine and art) with students in most animal-related programmes (veterinary medicine, veterinary technology, and production animal science) (Verrinder and others 2016).

In a study conducted in 2004, Serpell concluded that people from urban settings, as well as people who were exposed to animals at an early age, have a more positive attitude towards animals. Another study found a correlation between keeping companion animals and the moral values of veterinary students in two culturally contrasting countries (Australia and Turkey) (Izmirli and others 2014). In our study, no differences emerged between students from different social backgrounds with or without companion animals.

Conclusions

Our results showed that Italian veterinary students consider their own level of knowledge on AW to be good, relying on their university training, websites and television. Therefore, these sources should be considered for delivering messages on AW to this target audience. A general lack of knowledge emerged concerning the existing AW legislation in the EU. This gap was also highlighted in other surveys and should be addressed by veterinary schools across the EU. Further investigations into this issue in other EU countries would allow for the benchmarking of this situation and for the implementation of corrective actions.

Despite the veterinarians’ duties to respect the principle of equality (i.e. to approach equally all the treatments and procedures performed on vertebrates) (Vučinić 2006), the students’ concern for AW varies in relation to the species. The animals considered to be in the worst AW conditions were not considered to be the species raising the most concerns in regards to AW. Hence, it would be useful to educate veterinary students specifically on animal cognition, in order to guarantee the application and maintenance of high standards of AW in practice for all species.

The knowledge and opinions expressed by veterinary students in Italy towards AW has highlighted gaps that need to be addressed. Using the results of this study, tailored actions for new educational strategies for veterinary students should be developed, at national and international levels, to allow them to become future leaders on AW matters.

Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank all the department heads of the faculties that agreed to participate in the study (Universities of Bari, Bologna, Camerino, Messina, Milan, Naples, Padua, Parma, Perugia, Pisa, Teramo and Turin), as well as all the students who completed the questionnaires. In addition, the authors would like to thank Dr Shanis Barnard for language revision and the two anonymous referees for their very helpful comments.

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