By Dr. Becker
While many people are aware that biomedical research often involves the use of animal test subjects, few are aware that sometimes those subjects are dogs and cats.
The most commonly used species are rats and mice, which are bred for the purpose of research (not that this makes their use any more ethical), however a surprisingly large number of dogs and cats are also used in laboratory research.
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics, nearly 65,000 dogs and more than 21,500 cats are used in U.S. research studies each year.1
Why Are Dogs and Cats Used in Research?
In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires that every pesticide undergo animal testing, including testing on dogs, before it can be approved for market. Similar tests are required by the FDA for drugs and certain chemical food additives and preservatives.2
Test animals may be exposed to large doses of a chemical compound to determine its effects, or they may be bred to develop certain degenerative diseases, then euthanized in order to examine the disease processes.
It's hard for many pet owners to countenance the use of dogs and cats for such purposes, which is why their use in research is so controversial. Worse still is the fact that many of these animals are euthanized after the research study has concluded, even when they could have gone on to live a long and happy life.
New York Law Requires Research Dogs and Cats to Be Put for Adoption
In New York, former cats and dogs used for research by higher education institutes and laboratories will get a new lease on life thanks to a recently created law. The law requires that research institutions make "reasonable efforts" to offer research animals for adoption after the study is completed.
While the law applies to all dogs and cats used for research, it was particularly written with beagles, which are often bred for research, in mind. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement:3
"This is a humane law that, for these animals, provides the opportunity for a new lease on life … Dogs and cats are like members of the family for many New Yorkers and this action will allow for more four-legged friends to be adopted into a caring home."
Animals Still at Risk From Class B Dealers
If you're wondering where laboratories get cats and dogs to use in research, it's typically through the use of so-called Class A dealers, who breed and sell animals for this purpose.
However, some laboratories still get animals from Class B dealers, who gather animals from auctions, newspaper ads or virtually any source they can find.
Some lost pets become the property of Class B dealers, and some will even steal pets from owners' backyards in order to sell them off to research labs. Other Class B dealers round up animals from animal shelters, in a practice known as pound seizure.4
While some states prohibit animal shelters from turning over animals for use in research, others actually require them to do so. Other states have no laws regarding this practice, leaving vulnerable cats and dogs at significant risk.
Research Chimps Granted Their Freedom
The U.S. is the only country that still owns chimpanzees for research purposes, but hopefully it will be moving to join the many countries around the world that have already stopped the practice.
In 2013, plans were made to retire 400 of NIH's approximately 450 chimps, some of which had been in used in laboratory research for 50 years. At that time, the remaining chimps were allowed to be kept for future research that met certain criteria, such as public health emergencies.
Since then, however, it was announced that the remaining chimps would be retired to sanctuaries as well. The trend away from the use of animals in research mirrors that being seen among animals kept for entertainment purposes.
Earlier this year, for instance, SeaWorld announced that the 24 orcas currently living in three of its parks will be the last generation of killer whales at the parks, and the company is ending its killer whale breeding program.
Animals Don't Belong in Laboratories
It's time that the use of dogs and cats in biomedical research is also stopped and more effort put into creating reliable alternatives. I agree with The Humane Society of the United States' position regarding animals used in biomedical research:5
"As do most scientists, The HSUS advocates an end to the use of animals in biomedical research that is harmful to the animals. Accordingly, we strive to decrease and eventually eliminate harm to animals used for these purposes.
"… Replacement, reduction and refinement are known as the Three Rs or alternative methods. The Three Rs approach, rigorously applied, will benefit both animal welfare and biomedical progress."
Unfortunately, federal funding geared toward finding non-animal alternatives in research has historically been low.6
If there were any doubt as to the importance of letting animals live as animals and not as research subjects, it should be easily dismissed by watching the video below, in which former research dogs see the sun and feel grass for the first time.