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Alternatives to Animals in Education

Advancements in technology have led to the development of a variety of commercially available, interactive virtual dissection alternatives that provide students with three-dimensional views of animal organs, background information about the specimen being viewed, and anatomical comparisons of animals and humans. Many of these virtual programs are designed to work on tablets, laptops, desktops and interactive white boards. Several are available for free or for a nominal fee. Other alternatives, including 3-D models, videos and diagrams, are also available to biology educators. Although many of these models have been criticized for not providing the same kind of “hands-on” experience as dissection, alternatives have been shown to provide interactive learning experiences and serve as effective learning tools.

Several studies have compared the efficacy of student learning when using animal dissection versus alternatives. In general, the studies concluded that alternatives can be used to meet most learning objectives and that students using non-animal alternatives have been found to perform as well as or better than students using animal models1-7. One review of >30 published studies comparing how well students from pre-college to medical school learned with alternatives versus animal specimens concluded that there was “solid support for the replacement of traditional learning methods” involving animals with alternative approaches8.

In addition to being effective teaching tools, alternatives offer many other benefits. They are less expensive than traditional animal dissection and require less class time for preparation and cleanup, giving students the ability to work at their own pace and repeat virtual dissections numerous times, which can increase their ability to retain information9. Many virtual alternatives include detailed background information on specimens as well as built-in self-assessments, further enhancing students’ learning experiences and enabling them to gauge whether they have met the learning objectives of the exercise1,6.

Many educators find that alternatives are easy to use and that students are more willing to complete the exercise with dissection alternatives than with animal specimens. The use of non-animal alternatives also gives teachers the opportunity to discuss the value of animal life with their students and talk about the significance of humane education and the “3Rs” principle (reduction, refinement and replacement of animal use).


  1. Van der Valk, J., Dewhurst, D., Hughes, I., Atkinson, J., Balcombe, J., Braun, H. & others. (1999). Alternatives to the use of animals in higher education. ATLA: Alternatives to Lab Animals, 27, 39–52.
  2. Predavec, M. (2001). Evaluation of e-rat, a computer-based rat dissection, in terms of student learning outcomes. Journal of Biological Education, 35(2), 75–80.
  3. Valley, J.P., Piotrowski, P.S., Battaglia, B., Brophy, K. & Chugh, K. (2010). A comparison of v-Frog to physical frog dissection. International Journal of Environmental & Science Education, 5, 189–200.
  4. Dehoff, M.E., Clark, K.l. & Meganathan, K. (2011). Learning outcomes and student-perceived value of clay modeling and cat dissection in undergraduate human anatomy and physiology. Advances in Physiology Education, 35, 68–75.
  5. Monsour, C. (2011). Dissection alternative. American Biology Teacher, 73, 500–501.
  6. Oakley, J. (2013). Animal dissection in schools: Life lessons, alternatives and humane education. [Policy paper.] Ann Arbor, MI: Animals and Society Institute.
  7. Animalearn. Analysis of studies comparing the use of animals in science education to the use of humane educational methods. Available at http://www.animalearn.org/img/pdf/comparativestudies.pdf.
  8. Balcombe, J. (2003). Assessment of alternatives in education. in N. Jukes & M. Chiuia (eds.), From Guinea Pig to Computer Mouse (pp. 40–53). Leicester, UK: Interniche.
  9. Oakley, J. (2012). Science teachers and the dissection debate: perspectives on animal dissection and alternatives. International Journal of Environmental & Science Education, 7, 253–267.