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Dogs in Research
“Clearly, some testing and research is done in dogs for historical reasons [existence of benchmark data] rather than because they are the best models.”
JOANNE ZURLO ET AL, “CRITICAL EVALUATION OF THE USE OF DOGS IN BIOMEDICAL RESEARCH AND TESTING,” ALTEX, APRIL 2011
It is unconscionable that dogs, the most popular companion animals in the country, are used as research subjects in laboratories, but that is the tragic truth. United States 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 science has declined by 71% since their peak use in 1979, the most current USDA statistics show that 60,979 dogs were used for “research, testing, teaching, or experimentation” in 2016, although the exact purposes for which these dogs were used remain unclear.
The majority of dogs used in research, upwards of 75%, are estimated to be 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 be 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 easy to handle. Dogs are also used in many other areas of biomedical research, including heart research, surgery, dental health and studies of hereditary diseases, 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 breed beagles, hounds and mongrel dogs and raise the animals on their own premises to fulfill orders for canines ranging from 33-60 pounds that are 6 to 12 months old. Most dogs sold for research are less than a 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 state 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 that are obtained from an animal shelter or dog pound (a practice known as “pound seizure”), at auction, or from any person who did not breed and raise the dogs on their premises. Class B dogs are less expensive than “purpose-bred” dogs, although 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. It is important to note, however, that dogs with Class B-like characteristics, namely large, mature, socialized out-bred hounds or mongrels, are being bred by Class A dealers for use in scientific experimentation.
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 eight square feet per animal; dogs up to 66 pounds have a minimum floor area of 12 square feet per animal; and dogs more than 60 pounds have a minimum floor area of 24 square feet 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 adversely 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 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 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.