Frequently Asked Questions
1. How does laboratory animal research teach health professionals, medical professionals and scientists more than what is already known about the human body, injuries and diseases?
There are striking similarities between the body systems of humans and various species of animals. For example, much of what we know about the immune system has come from studies with mice, and much of what we know about the heart and heart disease treatment and surgery has come from studies with dogs. In fact, virtually every major medical advance of the last century is due, in part, to research with animals.
Laboratory animal testing is also required by our federal government to first provide necessary information that is then used to design studies using men, women and children as research subjects. It is important to gauge how a new drug or medical procedure will affect an entire living body system before using it on humans. All new medical devices, medical drugs and medical procedures must undergo a scientific peer review, plus a lengthy legal process of being tested with laboratory animals, followed by testing with people.
2. Are pets used in laboratory research?
While there are no absolute guarantees that pets can never be used, federal laws and local laws in many states exist to protect lost or stolen pets from inadvertently being used in medical or biomedical research. In addition, pet owners may purchase microchip identifiers for pets to wear hidden under the skin. Research facilities routinely scan newly arrived dogs and cats with an instrument that reads the microchip and identifies the owner. The pet is then immediately returned to its rightful owner, and not used with a research study.
The lifelong care and treatment of dogs and cats in research facilities is extensively regulated. In some states, local policies have been enacted, such as waiting-periods, to prevent animal pounds and shelters from selling misplaced pets to research facilities (an example is the state of Illinois Animal Welfare Act).
Many research facilities prefer to purchase animals from commercial animal dealers who breed dogs and cats for the sole purpose of laboratory research. These dealers must be licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and must follow strict Animal Welfare Act standards of care. On the receiving end, research companies must purchase animals only from those dealers approved by the USDA. Research companies must also comply with waiting-period requirements, unannounced USDA inspections, and detailed documentation of animal birth and origin. Together, all these measures help prevent your pet from becoming an involuntary research subject.
3. What role do veterinarians play in medical research with animals?
Veterinarians, who have chosen their profession because of their concern for animals, are intimately involved in the care and treatment of laboratory animals. They realize that results of animal research improve the health of animals as well as the health of people. Many advances in veterinary medicine are the direct result of animal research. The Parvovirus vaccine has saved the lives of many dogs. Heart pacemakers for both humans and animals were developed through research using dogs. Studies on animal reproductive physiology have helped prevent certain endangered species from reaching extinction. Distemper vaccines, tested on Siberian polecats, resulted in the revitalization of the once disappearing black-footed ferret population.
Veterinarians are also charged, by federal law, with the primary role of directing animal care and use programs for institutions that perform research with animals. The program must include the training of animal research scientists in the humane and responsible handling of research animals. The veterinarian also advises an internal review committee in the approval of all research protocols before animals may be studied. Staff under the veterinarian may include licensed veterinary medical technicians.
4. Are there any laws that prevent research animals from unnecessary pain during the research study?
Yes. The use of research animals is strictly controlled, particularly in regard to potential pain as a result of the study. The Animal Welfare Act was first published in the U.S. Federal Register in 1966, and numerous amendments have followed since (for a history of animal welfare laws, see http://www.animal-law.org/welfact/index.html). Animal comfort is addressed from birth through shipping, housing and feeding, the duration of the research study, and the animal’s death. Clauses in the Act also address exercise for dogs and psychological well-being for primates. Each research institution must establish an animal care and use committee that includes a member of the general public, such as a local veterinarian, church minister, or employee of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals. Membership on this committee must also include a veterinarian with specific experience in laboratory animal care. This committee reviews, approves (or disapproves), monitors and inspects every research study to help ensure that animals are not subject to unnecessary pain and distress.
Review committees are charged with keeping abreast with, and requiring research scientists to use, state-of-the-art methodology of preventing pain in laboratory animals. For instance, an animal that undergoes a surgical operation, according to approved study, is now given pain medication that will last after the surgical anesthetic has worn off and the animal wakes up. The animal is spared immediate post-operative pain, and also spared pain during the recovery period. In contrast, small animal veterinarians in private practice don’t always give post-operative pain medication to a pet dog or cat that has just been spayed or neutered. In general, state-of-the-art procedures are introduced into laboratory animal medicine long before procedures become routine in private practice.
Interestingly enough, research studies have also demonstrated that when animals do not feel pain, they provide more reliable scientific results.
5. What is meant by “cruelty-free” as written on cosmetics and consumer products?
The “cruelty-free” label is similar to a “low-fat” label in the grocery store, in that the implications are somewhat hidden from the public. Both are marketing strategies to sell a product by making it appear more desirable than another product. A dieter will soon learn he cannot lose weight by simply eating “fat-free” ice cream. He must also make sure the ice cream is low in sugar and low in calories. A woman buying a “cruelty-free” lotion may assume she is using a product that was not tested on research animals, but this claim is also misleading.
In reality, all ingredients that make up lotions and cosmetics produced in the U.S. must have at one time undergone safety tests, generally using rodents, as required by federal laws enacted several decades ago. The federal government places high priority on public health and the safety of its residents. Product safety laws help protect us from harm, should these products accidentally get into the eyes or be ingested. Our laws address not only the safety of prescription eye drops, for example, but also the safety of lubricating drops sold over-the-counter without a doctor’s prescription.
When you see a “cruelty-free” or “not tested on animals” label, one of several scenarios may be true. If a new lotion on the market contains ingredients that were approved years ago by safety studies using animals, the ingredients do not have to be tested again. Safety tests on select naturally occurring ingredients are not always required. If a company manufactures a new product, yet is not involved in the research of that product, it may still consider itself “cruelty-free”. To learn more about product safety laws, read about the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
Product safety testing also provides scientific information for poison control centers and emergency room physicians in the event a product is misused. Although non-animal models are being developed for product safety tests, the use of animals in product safety testing is still the preferred method by many scientists to demonstrate how substances will react in or on a living body system.
6. What is the difference between “animal rights” and “animal welfare”?
“Animal rights” is the belief that animals are not ours to use—for food, clothing, entertainment, or experimentation. There are dozens of animal rights groups in the U.S. (see http://www.aalas.org/). They vary greatly in type of opposition to the use of animals and method of carrying out their missions. Opposition varies from not using animals in research, to not wearing leather shoes. Methods of protest vary from educational outreach in elementary schools, to acts of terrorism. In the spring of 2002, following the September terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers and the Washington Pentagon, the FBI declared two animal rights groups, Animal Liberation Front and Environmental Liberation Front, as the top two terrorist groups in the U.S.
Animal welfare is a term that sprang up after the federal Animal Welfare Act passed in 1966. The term is used by research compliance inspectors employed by the government, and veterinarians and scientists employed by companies, hospitals, and universities that perform animal research, all of whom are charged with ensuring that detailed regulations are followed when using animals in research. People who promote animal welfare condone the controlled use of animals in research under the strict guidelines of the Animal Welfare Act and its numerous Amendments. Proactive animal welfare advocates also adopt the same high standards for the use of rats, mice, and birds in research, which are not presently included in the Animal Welfare Act.
7. Are research methods, such as computer models, being explored as alternatives to the use of research animals?
Yes. Computer models, cell cultures, and a number of research methods that compliment animal studies are used today in biomedical research. In fact, following the recent development of these complementary research models, the United States Department of Agriculture reports a reduction in the number of laboratory animals used in research. These computer models and other non-animal models are built using research data generated from animal studies. Without the knowledge gained from animal research, non-animal models would have no basis. To date, even the most sophisticated technology has not been able to mimic all the complicated interactions among cells, tissues and organs that occur in a living body.
Scientists are bound by law to investigate these interactions before using a new drug or chemical compound in studies with people. In the early stages of a research study, non-animal models are used to predict amounts of a chemical compound that would cause irreversible harm to a live animal. It will then be tested in living animals, and later tested in living people.
Incidentally, there are strong economic incentives to substitute research animals with computers or other complimentary non-animal methods whenever possible. Research animals are extremely expensive to purchase, house, and oversee during the research study.