Dogs in Research

"Man's Best Friend" by Kerri Aitken, Art for Animals 2011It is hard to believe that dogs, the most popular companion animals in the country, are used as research subjects in laboratories, but that is the unfortunate truth. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports show that tens of thousands of dogs are used for “research, testing, teaching, or experimentation” in the U.S. every year by research facilities, including hospitals, schools, diagnostic laboratories, and private firms in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. Although dog use in research and education has declined by two-thirds since 1973 when statistics were first recorded, the most current USDA statistics show that 59,358 dogs were used for this purpose in 2014.

The majority of dogs, an estimated 75%, are used in pharmaceutical testing, even though many scientists have concluded that they are poor predictors of drug effects in the human body. They are still used because regulatory authorities require that drugs are tested in both a rodent and a non-rodent species for toxicity, and the latter is often dogs, due to their ready availability, as well as their trusting and social nature which makes them are easy to handle. Dogs are also used in many other areas of biomedical research, including physiology, surgery, dental health, and to study hereditary diseases in humans, in addition to research on the health, nutrition and behavior of dogs themselves.

Beagles are the breed most often used in research because of their intermediate size and loving nature. Kevin J. Stafford, author of The Welfare of Dogs speculated that “Their existence for some time as ‘the’ laboratory dog may make it easier for handlers and research scientists to use them without becoming too emotionally attached to them.” When experiments call for larger animals, hounds (mongrels) are commonly used. Although the U.S. does not collect information on the breeds of dogs used in research, data obtained from Freedom of Information Act requests filed by NAVS revealed that many other dog breeds, including, but not limited to, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Greyhounds, Pit Bulls and Schnauzers are used as subjects at research facilities as well.

Most dogs used in research are purchased from Class A dealers, licensed commercial breeders that sell “purpose-bred” dogs specifically for research. They primarily breed beagles, hounds and mongrel dogs ranging from 33-60 pounds that are 6 to 12 months old and raise the animals on their own premises. Most dogs sold for research are less than 1 year old. From a research perspective, dogs from Class A dealers have good health and good veterinary care (known vaccination history, preventative treatment for parasites, known pedigree and improved socialization), but they are expensive, costing over $700 per dog, based on the most current price list from top vendors Ridglan Farms, Inc. and Marshall Bioresources. These vendors offer devocalization services (a surgical procedure which makes it physically impossible for the dog to bark) for $20-47 per dog; this is performed so that barking dogs do not disturb lab technicians. There are current legislative initiatives to ban devocalization, as the surgery can cause serious health issues, including infection, and increases the possibility of food and water becoming trapped in dogs’ lungs. As a result it is currently illegal in five states.

Some research institutions purchase dogs from Class B dealers, licensed dealers that sell “random source” dogs. These are dogs which are obtained from an animal shelter, dog pound, auction, or any person who did not breed and raise the dogs on their premises. Class B dogs are more affordable than “purpose-bred” dogs, however research with these animals may be compromised because of their unverifiable health status, poorly-defined temperament and unknown age. Over the past several years, more research institutions have moved away from using Class B dogs, and as a result, the number of Class B dealers has declined. In December 2013, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that they would implement a new policy prohibiting the procurement of dogs from Class B dealers using NIH grant funds starting in Fiscal Year 2015. This prohibition went into effect on October 1, 2014. Dogs used in NIH-supported research now need to be acquired from USDA Class A dealers or other approved legal sources such as privately owned colonies or client owned animals.

Once in the laboratory, dogs older than four months of age are identified with a tag or may have an ID number tattooed in their ear. They are housed in spaces depending on their weight, according to recommendations made by The Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals. It is recommended that dogs less than 33 pounds have a minimum floor area of 8 ft2 per animal; dogs up to 66 pounds have a minimum floor area of 12 ft2 per animal; and dogs more than 60 pounds have a minimum floor area of 24 ft2 per animal. The Guide also recommends that cage height be sufficient for the animals to be comfortable standing with their feet on the floor.

Dogs in laboratory settings have been shown to display signs of stress, fear and anxiety. A number of common laboratory procedures can cause this response, including cage changing, the removal of a dog from a stable social group, changing of established maintenance routines, or restraint or confinement in a strange setting. While some dogs are able to adapt positively to stressors, other dogs are unsuccessful and can develop disorders and dysfunctions that can significantly affect their quality of life, in addition to significantly impacting the research in which the animal is involved. Laboratory dogs that are exhibiting signs of short term stress may shake, crouch, display signs of restlessness or oral behaviors (tongue out, licking muzzle, swallowing). Dogs that display signs of long term or chronic stress may be vocal, exhibit repetitive behaviors, have low posture, increase autogrooming and may eat feces. It has been noted that dogs often stop such behaviors when their handlers enter the room, resulting in a serious underestimation of the true mental and physical condition of dogs in laboratory settings.

Man’s best friend deserves better than this. Considering that all of the differences between dogs and humans make them a poor model for humans, there is no reason to continue subjecting these amazing companion animals to unnecessary pain and experimentation.

What can you do to help end the use of dogs in research? Partner with NAVS and make a donation to help spare man’s best friend from the cruelty and waste of animal experimentation.

Number of Dogs Used in Research


Field, G. and Jackson, T.A. (2007). The Laboratory Canine. CRC Press. Hasiwa, N., et al. (2011) Critical Evaluation of the Use of Dogs in Biomedical Research and Testing in Europe. ALTEX. Vol. 28, 4/11, p. 326-340

Meunier, L.D. (2006). Selection, Acclimation, Training, and Preparation of Dogs for the Research Setting, ILAR Journal. Vol 47, Number 4, p. 326-347.

National Research Council. (2009). Scientific and Humane Issues in the Use of Random Source Dogs and Cats in Research.

Stafford, K.J. (2006). The Welfare of Dogs.

Turner, M. (2011). Call to curb lab tests on dogs. Nature. 474, p. 551.

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