The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has filed a federal complaint against the University of Washington over its use of ferrets to train pediatric residents. According to PCRM, live ferrets are used by the school’s pediatrics program to teach doctors how to do a endotracheal intubation: “This involves repeatedly forcing a plastic tube through the mouth and into the windpipe (trachea) of a live ferret. Animals used in these training procedures often suffer tracheal bruising, bleeding, scarring, severe pain, and even death.”

The PCRM alleges in their lawsuit that the University of Washington’s use of ferrets violates federal law, specifically the Animal Welfare Act. The law “requires consideration of alternatives to procedures that cause more than momentary or slight pain or distress to animals used for research or educational purposes.” Shoving tubes down an animal’s windpipe — anesthetized or not — certainly sounds like it might cause “slight pain or distress.”

There’s also little reason to use ferrets or other animals this way, as alternatives exist. More than 85 percent of U.S. pediatric programs use non-animal education methods. “It is unnecessary to traumatize and harm animals to teach pediatric emergency procedures, especially when validated simulators developed to replace animals are widely used,” says pediatrician Leslie Brown, M.D., a PCRM member who cosigned the federal complaint. “A human infant’s anatomy is different from a ferret’s or a rabbit’s, and residents at UW can get a better education using human patient simulators.”

In fairness, the University of Washington isn’t totally heartless when it comes to its use of ferrets. They are anesthetized, and at the age of six or so, they are adopted out to families. The ferrets are not euthanized.

Still, one has to be a bit leery of trusting the U. of W. too much. As the Seattle Times reports, they have “been cited in the past for deficiencies in animal research, including allowing a monkey to starve in 2009. In 2008, it had to return $20,000 in federal research grant money after a finding that it had allowed unauthorized surgeries on primates. Inspectors found serious deficiencies in animal-care facilities in 2006 and put the UW on probation.”

So let’s take trust and guesswork out of the equation. Let’s call on the University of Washington to stop using ferrets for medical training and start using simulators. It’s better for people and better for ferrets.

Photo Credit: Public Domain