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.

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