CCSAW students take home gold

How a team of students helped bring home top honours in animal welfare for the University of Guelph

The conference room is buzzing with more than 200 university students from undergraduate, graduate and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine programs. They’ve gathered for the 22nd annual American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) animal welfare assessment contest hosted by North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Students mingle but are completely anonymous during judging; their lapels are adorned with only a number, which will be used to identify them throughout the competition. Only when the results of the competition are revealed will their names and schools be announced.

By the end of the weekend, everyone will be familiar with the University of Guelph.

OVC DVM students take a selfie at the start of the AVMA welfare assessment competition at North Carolina State College in Raleigh, North Carolina. From left: Shaela Hurley (OVC Class of 2025); Tula Sifling (OVC Class of 2026) (foreground); Nena Stanekovic (background), Jacob Maxwell, Emily Merry (all (OVC Class of 2025); and Diana Fitzgerald (OVC Class of 2026).

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Preparation started six months in advance with the University of Guelph’s advisors for the competition – Dr. Derek Haley, professor of applied ethology at the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC), Dr. Tina Widowski, professor in the Ontario Agricultural College and animal welfare expert, and Quinn Rausch, a PhD candidate at OVC.

The competition offers students a unique opportunity to flex their skills in animal welfare science by assessing four species in different settings and delivering a presentation to a panel of industry judges.

Competition preparation is so involved that some undergraduate and graduate students receive course credit for their work, and regardless of their education level, they train together. “Undergraduates, graduates and DVM students studying together is the envy of competing universities because students benefit from their varied skills, backgrounds and expertise coming together in pursuit of a shared goal,” says Haley. Widowski adds that U of G’s Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare (CCSAW) gives the team access to a wide variety of animal welfare faculty that span various U of G colleges. CCSAW also provides some funding to the teams for travel costs helped by support from Saputo.

The university has been attending the competition since 2002, with Haley and Widowski coaching the welfare assessment teams for 14 years. U of G has traditionally brought home strong results, underlining the university’s strengths in animal welfare research and teaching.

“Participating students get a hands-on opportunity to take what they’re learning from peers, coaches and classes and use critical thinking in practice,” says Haley. “Students also take away some amazing skills they can use wherever they’re headed; learning to give feedback to their peers, presenting findings in a vulnerable setting, fortifying a team with the strengths of each individual and building relationships that stay with them long after competition.”

Each year, the species up for judging are announced in May, however, advisors can’t recruit students until the first week of September, after which, training begins. Research for the 2022 species (which included show chickens, beef calves, shelter cats and dogs and captive octopus) began in October, allowing just one month for species-specific preparation before the participants’ skills were tested.

Haley and Widowski engaged former students and in-class connections to set up learning opportunities for the team with each of the species, starting with a visit to the Guelph Humane Society.

“Students were given 10 to 15 minutes to observe and collect information inside the shelter, guided by questions,” describes Widowski. “They prepared a presentation about their findings to defend their conclusions, which is exactly what they have to do at the contest.”  

The rest of the species were covered through virtual or in-person talks from farmers and caretakers, including the caretaker of the octopuses at Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto.

The talks from animal caregivers bring a different dimension for the students’ learning about animal welfare. These experts with intimate experience working with the animals help identify day-to-day routines, personality differences and environmental enrichments provided. This gives students a base to explore research on physiologic, health and behavioural indicators of each species to produce summary sheets they bring to competition.

Diana Fitzgerald, a Phase 1 student in the OVC DVM Class of 2026, relied on those summary sheets during the competition. “Students came together to prepare massive summaries on key welfare issues and measurable parameters,” describes Fitzgerald. “For the octopus case, I referred to my summary sheet for aquarium nitrate levels. For companion animals, it was ideal cat enclosure sizes.”

Perhaps some of the most valuable elements of the students’ prep work was the team environment. The teams practiced their assessment skills with mock scenarios that were incredibly valuable in helping them lean into the collaboration and cohesion that would be critical to their success.

“Mock scenarios made us realize the things we missed, like counting how many animals were displaying specific types of behaviour” says Shaela Hurley, a Phase 2 DVM student. “We adjusted our approach by delegating tasks within teams to maximize our time in competition.”

Jacob Maxwell, a Phase 2 DVM student, admits that there’s a common weakness DVM students face during welfare assessment that benefits from studying with students of different expertise. “[DVM students in competition] have to continually remind ourselves to relate any comment on animal health, which comes naturally to us, back to animal welfare. The two overlap but are not the same.” 

For example, Maxwell describes an animal shelter environment where overflow cat housing is also used for quarantine. With shared housing, incoming cats would likely be exposed to contagious diseases, potentially leading to negative welfare states like pain and malaise. “From a biomedical perspective, the shelter may consider separating these groups. If separation meant assigning incoming cats to barren cages without enrichment, the cats may be free from pain and discomfort but subject to boredom and frustration. While health is important to good welfare, factors like environmental enrichment can be equally vital,” Maxwell says.

Back in the conference room, students are seated and things have quieted down as the results for each award category are announced. OVC DVM students received four out of five of the top finishes in their category. They also placed first and fifth in the team divisions and placed first overall in the live assessment. Undergraduate and graduate student teams, including OVC students, also brought home individual and team awards.

“For me, the best part of the competition was when they listed the top five DVM individual awards,” says Fitzgerald. “One after another, our team was called to receive awards. It was a magnificently proud moment and as every University of Guelph student was named, we cheered even louder. But in my opinion the statement we made as a team was even louder; the University of Guelph cares deeply about animal welfare.”

This piece originally appeared in the summer 2023 edition of OVC’s The Crest.