Not all animal research created equal

I recently adopted two cats from a humane society. Part of the process involved signing a declaration form that included the promise to seek veterinary care if the cats become ill and not let them roam outside. What caught me off guard was the promise to not involve the cat in “live animal research.”

This statement struck me as odd. Nearly every day, I read about, observe and use the benefits of animal research in my role as a veterinarian who practices pathology.

In fact, you would be hard pressed to find any health professional who doesn’t use the results from animal research in their practices. It is through animal research that society has the benefit of medications, surgical procedures and advanced diagnostic tests.

So why was this included in the adoption form? Clearly this all-encompassing statement is a reflection of what society perceives animal research to be. “Animal research” has become a pair of dirty words.

We’ve all seen the horrific images of historical laboratory animal studies where, no doubt, the animals suffered what we would perceive as pain and cruelty. However, I challenge you to open your mind to the broad scope of modern research that uses live animals.

The Canadian Council on Animal Care oversees the use of animals for science in Canada and certifies institutions that meet its standards.

“The use of animals in research, teaching and testing is acceptable only if it promises to contribute to the understanding of fundamental biological principles or to the development of knowledge that can reasonably be expected to benefit humans or animals,” the council says.

Animal research in institutions must pass through rigorous animal care committees, in which the validity of the research, number of animals, pain management and humane endpoints are evaluated and questioned.

The research cannot be done without passing this hurdle. These committees include researchers, veterinarians, members of the general public and technical staff.

Scientific literature is another way to sanction ethical research and communicate findings to other scientists. All major scientific journals require ethics statements on the use of animals before publishing a study.

I can offer examples where live animal research was conducted ethically and without causing harm.

One summer, I was involved in a live animal research study where we took nose swabs from horses in Sask-atchewan to test for the superbug MRSA.

Previous studies have found that horses can carry these bacteria without causing illness and may be a source of infection for people. As a result, we wanted to get a baseline of what proportion of horses were carriers to better understand the risk to human health.

I travelled around the province swabbing horses that ranged from pasture ornaments to rodeo bucking horses. I’m convinced that none of the 150 horses I sampled were harmed by this study, which allowed us to determine that a small percentage carry MRSA.

Comparing sick pets to their healthy counterparts is a major form of research done on dog and cat diseases. This comparison helps determine if there are differences that can explain the illness or help characterize the disease.

For example, a colleague of mine, Dr. Kim Pattullo, was investigating a blood abnormality in dogs. For her study, she needed to compare dogs with the disorder to those without.

She needed a group of healthy control dogs, and I was more than happy to have a small amount of blood taken from my dog for her study. There were no ill effects from collecting this sample, and it actually benefitted my dog and me because I now have base line blood work in case he becomes ill in the future.

Research involving animals is vital to improving human and animal health.

Many studies are conducted using non-invasive or minimally invasive techniques, and the standard of care of animals used in research in Canada is among the best in the world.

Painting all animal research with the same brush is unfair.

Dr. Jamie Rothenburger is a veterinary pathology resident at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Saskatchewan.

  • Steve Kempf

    I’m not surprised at the Humane Society requirement that your adopted cats not be used in animal research. Most animals at the Humane Society have come from previous owners who either lost them or could no longer care for them. These animals are use to a very different environment then that found in a research lab. Also their expectations of what sort of behavior to expect from humans is also probably very different than that of your typical research cat. To place these animals in a research situation would put them under unnecessary stress and thus should be considered inhumane. I have served on the IACUC and I know that any submitted animal research protocol that involved the use of Humane Society animals for more than just comparison with research animals (or perhaps a spaying program) would be rejected. Also, the Humane Society does not want to be put in the position of supplying animals for research.

    • Dr. Jamie Rothenburger

      Dear Mr. Kempf,
      Of course, I think it would be very wrong to ‘adopt’ a pet under false pretenses and place it in a research setting. And I agree that Humane Societies would likely not wish to be in a position of supplying pets for research. Thank-you very much for your comments.

  • Paul Stein

    With regards to the statement that, “We’ve all seen the horrific images of historical laboratory animal studies where, no doubt, the animals suffered what we would perceive as pain and cruelty.”, just because pictures may appear horrific does not mean that any sort of suffering has occurred. Much animal experimentation, similar to many surgical operations in humans, are quite highly invasive, with significant bloodletting. However, there is no cruelty involved. Anyone who knows anything about physiology understands that unresolved pain can so modify experimental measurements as to make them worthless. Why would anyone waste their careers, time, and money on such endeavors? Hence, for over a hundred years, all of these studies, however ugly, have been performed under anesthetic levels sufficient to deaden any pain perception so that the discoveries made and treatments developed are truly real and worth the sacrifice of animal life. What is seemingly “cruel” is in the eye of the uninformed.

  • Ivy V.

    Dear Jamie,
    I’m sure the shelter just wanted to make sure you’re no Bill Frist:
    Frist practicing surgical skills on cats

    I’m in research myself (in vitro kinetics and mathematical modelling of hemostasis mechanisms), and although I am not trained to perform animal experiments and as such I would not qualify for a job that requires this, I do realize that drug trials etc don’t get off the ground without animal testing. I also suspect that you would not have been eager to participate in the dog study if it had required that your dog be sacrificed and its organ tissues analyzed. My 3 cats greet me with great enthusiasm every evening after work, and two of them are listed as potential blood donors with my vet (one is FIV+ and a sweetie). I am looking forward to future developments that may gradually replace animal testing for medical purposes, and I know that thousands of rats, mice, rabbits and other animals give their lives so ours and those of our pets and livestock may benefit from their sacrifice in the long run. I strongly disagree with the PETA philosophy and approach, but I would not be cut out for in vivo work that requires sacrificing the animal. And I know I’m a hypocrite because in my household I’m the vegan and my 3 cats are carnivores. Kudos to you Jamie, you have your heart in the right place.