Can I figure out how to handle this unpleasant dissection lab?
January 22, 2019 12:48 PM   Subscribe

I'm about to start taking Anatomy & Physiology as a nursing school prereq. I knew going into it that this class would probably involve dissection(s). I just found out that we're dissecting a cat, though, and I'm freaking out about it. Please help me figure out how to cope with this!

Dissection squicks me in a way that medical procedures on living creatures don't. When we dissected a frog in ninth grade biology, I was able to watch, but I made my lab partner do all the cutting. I didn't even take AP Bio. I've since discovered a strong interest in advanced practice nursing. I'm about to take A&P, figuring that it's the hardest prerequisite, and the one most likely to be a barrier for me. If I can't get through this class, then I have to chuck that whole plan/dream out the window.

So I accepted that I'd have to dissect something: maybe a fetal pig or an eye or something. For all I knew, we might even go see a human cadaver. Okay. I was nervous but accepting.

But I just got the syllabus and we're dissecting... a cat?! Seriously? Oh noooo. Not cool. I love cats. I have cats. I watch kitten webcams. This is very upsetting to me. Why are they having us dissect an animal that many of us have as a beloved pet?! Also, dissecting a cat makes me think of horrible pet-torturers or the nasty people in my hometown who left murdered cats on the elementary school playground. Emotional gut reaction: plenty of normal people cut up pigs on a regular basis - for food, I mean - but only bad people cut up cats!!

Also, I understand that this is part of the class because it's meant to be a valuable learning experience, but it troubles me to think that these are probably euthanized shelter cats that were basically sold for parts because it was cheaper than taking care of them. You probably can't, but if you could say anything to make me feel better about the source of the animal, it would be nice.

Basically I'm both super squicked by the thought of dissecting a kitty and I'm troubled by the ethical issues of cutting up an animal for my education. (Perhaps worth noting here that I've also been a vegetarian for 14 years, so dead-animal-flesh just isn't a part of my life. I'm not an absolute hardliner, and I have some understanding of the necessity of animal experiments in science and medicine, but I try to avoid having an animal killed on my behalf wherever possible, you know?)

I don't want to have to drop this class. Can you suggest any strategies for getting through this? How can I detach myself and view this clinically? What things should I tell myself as I work on the dissection? Can I cover up its sweet little kitty face as I work? Is it going to still have its fur? Have you really dreaded a similar task and gotten through it? I would love some advice and suggestions.
posted by mandanza to Science & Nature (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You absolutely must go talk to your professor about your reservations.
posted by Dashy at 12:54 PM on January 22 [11 favorites]

I dissected a cat in high school and we were told that they came from Mexico. No idea if that is true.
Cats are apparently very affordable for such classes.
If you can try to abstract yourself from it, it may help.
posted by k8t at 12:55 PM on January 22

I also dissected a cat in high school. I think we were told ours were from South America maybe, and I got the idea that they were feral strays that were tormenting their neighborhood (maybe that's the story I told myself to get through it!). Anyway our cats were most certainly not cute fluffy kitties that you see in pet stores/shelters, they were scrawny and hideous and looked like they'd probably be trying to give you some awful disease if they were't already dead. I'm also a sometimes-vegetarian and a very soft-hearted about animals, and I had zero problems with this dissection.
posted by jabes at 1:00 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]

Look, I love and own cats too and was similarly apprehensive when I dissected one in high school.

But the cats that arrived were...not cute. It seemed like the kind of cat liable to pick fights with local wildlife. The procedure is also oriented such that you’re not looking at its face. Plus, the ones we got were preserved in something and in general did not give off “this is a kitty” vibes.

But also take care of yourself, it really can’t hurt to talk to the professor.
posted by Maecenas at 1:01 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]

Emotional gut reaction: plenty of normal people cut up pigs on a regular basis - for food, I mean - but only bad people cut up cats!!

I would suggest trying to break the association you have between dissecting a cadaver and disrespecting/doing violence to the former owner of that cadaver. Read this post and the linked articles about medical school students and their relationships with their human dissection subjects - there seems to be a lot of acknowledgement of and respect for the dead person and their sacrifice. And, coming back to your animal abuse related squick reaction, there is less than no resemblance between what medical students do to cadavers and what serial killers do to victims.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:04 PM on January 22 [16 favorites]

So many cats are put down that this wasn't "done for you" - it likely would have happened anyway, regardless of the number of AP bio students in existence. And since this is a (yes, sad) thing that happens you might as well honour them by learning from their bodies... they would be alive and happy otherwise, they'd just be dead in a dumpster otherwise.

Talk to the professor, but a few sessions with a therapist unpacking whatever awful thing was happening at your school is worth it too. I love cats and have three, and this is definitely some extra baggage. I bet there's a few CBT exercises you can use to get through it. Campus counsellor may be available - ask the prof.
posted by jrobin276 at 1:06 PM on January 22 [5 favorites]

Definitely talk to your instructor. You may find it helpful to check out youtube videos of cat dissections to get an idea of what it's like before you talk to them / have a better idea of whether you'll be fine just letting a lab partner do most of the cutting (this happens a lot in lab courses) or you want to ask for alternate instruction techniques (which may or may not be an option).
posted by momus_window at 1:08 PM on January 22

I dissected a cat in high school as part of my anatomy & physiology class. It had fur, it had it's whole face. It was a complete animal with all of its parts. If this is going to upset you please, please discuss it with your instructor.

I will say, though... You have to remember this isn't a cat anymore. Write down a list of what makes a cat and you will get a huge list of adjectives, actions, personality traits, all kinds of qualities that describe some essence of catness. "Has: fur, body, face" is not what makes a cat. You can't know anything about who that cat was in life by dissecting the body. Its catness has gone. That helped me, it may help you.
posted by phunniemee at 1:13 PM on January 22 [16 favorites]

While working with real human bones in my osteology classes I had a bit of a moment when I knew enough about aging and sexing bone to realize that the skull I was holding had once belonged to a woman who had died younger than me. My professor's motto helped. "Mortui Vivos Docent" The dead teach the living. You will do so much good as a nurse- let the cat teach you what it can so you can help others.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 1:17 PM on January 22 [56 favorites]

I also dissected a cat in high school and I agree with the above comments re how little the specimen looked like any cat I had ever seen IRL. Once the fur is removed, it might as.well be a fetal pig (did that in college).

Most important —as mentioned above—if you weren't dissecting it (and learning from the experience), it would have simply been unceremoniously disposed of by the cheapest means available.
posted by she's not there at 1:17 PM on January 22 [3 favorites]

I am also a lifelong and emotional cat-lover who dissected a cat in high school for A&P. It was an extraordinary experience and I am still grateful for everything our cat taught us. Treat it with respect, require nothing but 100% respect from your peers, and honor your specimen by not letting this learning opportunity go to waste. Everything you can learn from this animal can add meaning and significance to its life and death.
posted by juliplease at 1:18 PM on January 22 [20 favorites]

The cats you’ll use in your lab would have been euthanized anyway, and then incinerated as biohazard. At least this way, their little lives will be a gift to you and your classmates, and to every patient you help as a nurse.

I dissected a cat in A&P during nursing school. I had the same concerns as you did, and would have vastly preferred to use a human cadaver. It turned out to be a profoundly moving and valuable part of my education. I am so glad I had the opportunity.
posted by jesourie at 1:29 PM on January 22 [10 favorites]

I would most definitely talk to your instructor about this, however, one of the answers you might hear is "if you cannot put aside emotion and disgust now, how will you do it when you are a nurse?". Whether or not this is a valid argument for cat dissection is really beyond the scope of this question but it's probably an answer from your instructor should be prepared to hear.
posted by Dr. Twist at 1:35 PM on January 22 [4 favorites]

Nth-ing all of the above. When I did this, I traded the cadaver I got with someone else so mine wouldn’t seem to resemble the body size and fur color of my own cat at home. People understood.
posted by Knowyournuts at 1:36 PM on January 22 [3 favorites]

if you opt out of dissecting a cat, the cat you would have dissected might end up getting dissected by some other student, who might be some asshole who hates cats.

you know that if you end up dissecting the cat, you will do so from an attitude of respect and humility. the cat is already dead and the fate of its remains is already decided. but you can control the manner and spirit in which it is dissected for educational purposes.

you would be doing right by this cat by dissecting it.
posted by prize bull octorok at 1:47 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]

It's not a cat! It ceased to be anything but a collection of organic matter the instant it died, like all things that have died. Perhaps viewing it in a more abstract way will help you get away from the associations you have with the living creatures known as cats.
posted by GoblinHoney at 2:11 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]

Thank you all for your answers. I marked a few as best, but all of the answers here are tremendously helpful. I knew I needed a different perspective and you have all provided that so wonderfully - thank you.
posted by mandanza at 2:15 PM on January 22 [4 favorites]

You are dissecting this cat so that you can help save the lives of people who will then be able to go back home and continue to take care of theirs own cats and rescue more kitties in need. See it as being in service to help future kitties.
posted by MountainDaisy at 3:21 PM on January 22 [10 favorites]

I, too, am a a huge lover of cats. I also work with laboratory animals (not cats) in my daily life.

Were I in this position, I'd try to frame it as an otherwise unwanted cat being given a purpose. He's giving up his life to further human knowledge. Furthermore, he was probably bred for this purpose and without your using him to learn, would just be euthanized and incinerated as biohazard waste. It seems more respectful to me to dissect the cat and thereby give him a reason for having existed. It also probably sounds hokey, but every time I sacrifice a mouse, I silently thank him or her for the gift.

I will say that I have never had to use a cat for research purposes and often say I am uncomfortable working with any living thing more complex than a mouse, so I also think you are justified in speaking to your professor about your misgivings.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 3:47 PM on January 22

"Thank you, cat, for living and dying so that I could learn from you."

Also, exposure therapy. The more you do this, the more comfortable you'll become. Sucks, doesn't it?
posted by bluedaisy at 4:11 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]

Re: the source of cats for dissection - Carolina Biological Supply is one of the larger providers of animals used for classroom dissection, and they have an FAQ on their site. About cats, they say: Animal shelters furnish euthanized cats that would be destined for the landfill were we unable to utilize them for science classrooms.
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:18 PM on January 22 [3 favorites]

Maybe you can use the cat-specific anatomy knowledge you'll gain, to help you understand any future medical issues your own cats have? This is a long shot, but hey, it's all I've got (aside from the helpful comments above).
posted by amtho at 10:40 PM on January 22

I kept my HS cat dissection's brain in a jar on my shelf for years and years. That cat lived more than 9 lives. Everybody who noticed heard the story of that cat. We may not know his name, but he lives on and on and on.
posted by zengargoyle at 1:02 AM on January 23 [1 favorite]

If it's any consolation, you'll be more cat than you are now and cats will love you more because you know cat.
posted by zengargoyle at 1:12 AM on January 23

I ran into this same problem in a college biology class. I quietly asked the professor if there was alternative and he offered me either a frog or a fetal pig. I took the frog.
posted by mannyfeefees at 2:53 AM on January 23 [1 favorite]

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