A report just released by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) contains what appears on its face to be positive news regarding the use of animals in science: the overall number of Animal Welfare Act (AWA)-covered animals used by USDA licensees decreased over the past year. Unfortunately, this overall decrease masks the fact that the use of most individual animal species actually increased.
The report shows that the number of AWA-covered animals used for research, testing, teaching and experimentation by USDA licensees has decreased by 3.5% from 2016 to 2017. The U.S. reported the total number of AWA-covered animals used last year was 792,168, compared to 820,812 in 2016—a reduction of 28,644 animals.
Despite this promising finding, however, we were dismayed to see that the use of most types of lab animals increased over the past year. Use of sheep increased the most (15.2%), followed by “other farm animals” (9.9%), primates (6.5%), dogs (6.1%), guinea pigs (4.7%) rabbits (4.6%) and pigs (1.6%).
So how is it that most animal use increased, while the overall number decreased? It’s due primarily to a large reduction (32.1%) in animal use in the “all other covered species” category, a vague grouping which includes the AWA-covered animals not mentioned in the categories previously listed. In addition, both cats and hamsters saw a 4% decrease in their use over the past year. These reductions combined to bring down the overall animal use figure.
The report also revealed that approximately 60.4% of animals were used in procedures in which no pain was involved; 31.8% in painful procedures in which pain drugs were administered; and 7.8% in painful procedures in which pain drugs were not administered, which reflects a very similar pattern in animal use observed in past years.
While we are pleased that APHIS has released these new statistics on animal use, it is important to note that these statistics represent a very incomplete picture of animal use in this country, and that the report generated by our government is far inferior to reports on animal use generated by other countries. First, the U.S. annual report does not account for the estimated 95% of all animals used in research, including mice and rats. And importantly, the report makes no mention of how animals are being used in this country (i.e. the purpose of the research).
More meaningful information on animal use is essential to improving animal welfare and promoting advancements in science. Increasing transparency by providing this basic information in annual reports would enable a constructive discussion on how well the 3R’s—reduction, refinement and replacement—of animal use are being implemented in this country.
NAVS’ science advisors have recently shared these transparency concerns with the Government Accountability Office. In addition, we await a decision from APHIS on the petition for rulemaking that we submitted asking that requirements for recordkeeping and reporting on the use of animals be amended to include more detailed information regarding the specific purposes for which animals are being used in this country.
While NAVS is encouraged to learn that the number of AWA-covered animals used in research, testing and teaching has declined since last year, we have serious concerns about the increases in animal use shown for most categories of animals, and about the lack of transparency from our government on how and why these animals are being used.