Animal Testing

The use of animals for research and testing has been part of science since its inception. The lives of research animals of all kinds were often short and painful. In contrast, animal rights activists contend that the lives of animals should be protected as if they were human. They strongly oppose the pain and suffering and killing of animals.


I. Animals Used in Testing and Research

II. Animal Testing Proponents

III. Research and Testing of Animals to Achieve Public Health Victories

IV. The Animal Welfare Act of 1966

V. Animal Care: What Is Humane?

VI. Exemptions

VII. Pet Protection from Animal Testing and Research

VIII. Humane Standards in Research Facilities

IX. Conclusion

Animals Used in Testing and Research

Animal Testing PETAAnimals are used extensively for food and clothing. They are also used in testing and research. Many researchers are most interested in the impact on human of a given chemical in the air or water. Other researchers are working on vaccines and other public health research. Some animals are used in medical diagnosis, such as seeing if a rabbit died after injected with the blood of a pregnant woman. Human subject testing is often illegal and considered unethical. Animals are used extensively and successfully in research and testing. Seventy million animals are used in this manner in the United States each year. Organizations using animals include private research institutions, household chemical product and cosmetics companies, government agencies, colleges and universities, and medical centers. Household goods and cosmetics such as lipstick, eye shadow, soap, waxes, and oven cleaner may be tested on animals. Many of these products now advertise that they do not use animals to test their products. These tests on animals are mainly used to test the degree of harmfulness of the ingredients. Animals are generally exposed to the ingredient until about half die in a certain time period. Animals that survive testing may also have to be euthanized. The primary objections to animal testing are as follows:

  • It is cruel in that it causes unnecessary pain and suffering.
  • It is outdated; there are more humane modern methods.
  • It is not required by law.

Manufacturers justify the use of animal testing to make sure none of the ingredients in their products can pose human risks. By using mammals for their tests, manufacturers are using some of the best tests available. They also claim that the law and regulation almost require them to use animal testing. This is a point of controversy. According to the law, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires only that each ingredient in a cosmetics product be “adequately substantiated for safety” prior to marketing. If it cannot be substantiated for safety then the product must have some type of warning. Furthermore,

  • The FDA does not have the authority to require any particular product test.
  • Testing methods are determined by the cosmetics and household product manufacturers.
  • The test results are mainly used to defend these companies against consumer lawsuits.

Part of this controversy is the issue of humane alternatives, alternatives that do not use animals for testing or research. Animal rights advocates contend that humane alternatives are more reliable and less expensive than animal tests. Computer modeling and use of animal parts instead of live animals are the main humane alternatives. One controversial test uses the eyes of rabbits. The eyes of rabbits are very sensitive to their surroundings. Some Flemish hares (rabbits) were used in the storage silos of Umatilla’s biochemical weapon storage facility. If nerve gas was escaping, the eyes of the Flemish hares would dilate. One test involving rabbits’ eyes could be replaced by a nonanimal test. The Draize Eye Test uses live rabbits to measure how much a chemical irritates the eye. Instead of using live rabbits for this test, eye banks or computer models can be used to accurately test the irritancy level of a given chemical. However, researchers contest the reliability and cost of these alternatives.

Other alternatives to using animals for research and testing include:

  • Chemical assay tests
  • Tissue culture systems
  • Cell and organ cultures
  • Cloned human skin cells
  • Human skin patches
  • Computer and mathematical models

Animal Testing Proponents

Today, scientists are using animal research to

  • Study factors that affect transmission of avian flu between birds as well as the genetic and molecular adaptation from wild birds to domestic poultry
  • Evaluate whether ducks in Asia are infection reservoirs sustaining the existence of the H5N1 virus
  • Develop new and evaluate existing techniques to predict which mild forms of the avian flu virus might transform into more deadly forms
  • Develop improved vaccines against avian flu for birds and evaluate vaccines for human use

Heightened animal research is necessary to combat avian flu and other new and emerging animal-borne diseases such as mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy [BSE]), SARS, and West Nile virus. Scientists point out that about three quarters of animal diseases can infect humans. Some call for more collaboration between animal health and public health organizations. Animal research and testing will be required for this collaboration.

Research and Testing of Animals to Achieve Public Health Victories

Major advances in U.S. public health that have increased longevity and the quality of human life were based on research using animals. The decline in U.S. death rates from cardiovascular diseases, infections, and most kinds of cancer since the 1960s is the result of new methods of treatment based on research requiring animals. Researchers claim that others do not understand the long-term results of such research and how it is conducted. Researchers also claim that others do not recognize important differences between using animals for product testing and for biomedical research. Biomedical research is more justified because of the public health benefits to society, while product testing is to increase the product safety to the consumer and profit of a manufacturer.

All researchers and research facilities are not the same. Some research sponsors are also concerned about the use of animals in testing and research. There are ways to encourage whenever possible the use of alternatives to live animal testing. The American Heart Association (AHA) sponsors important heart-related research. They have specific guidelines about how research animals are to be used and treated. First, the researcher must demonstrate that the animals are needed, and that there are no viable substitutes for the animal. Second, when animals are needed for association-funded experiments, the animals must be handled responsibly and humanely. Before being approved for Association support, the researchers must show that:

  • They have looked at alternative methods to using animals.
  • Their research cannot be successfully conducted without the use of animals.
  • Their experiments are designed to produce needed results and information.

Together with other responsible and committed research-sponsoring organizations, the AHA hopes to ensure that the use of animals for testing and research will occur more carefully. Many universities have developed ethical guidelines for the use of animals in their research programs.

Not all animal testing occurs in these types of organizations. It is still much more expensive to develop new and untested alternatives than to treat some animals as expendable. A given method of drug testing may be more humane to the animals but less effective as a predictor of the drug’s impact on humans.

The Animal Welfare Act of 1966

The main law is the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) of 1966. As such it has been a fl ash point of controversy for animal rights activists. The AWA is the minimum acceptable standard in most U.S. animal rights legislation. Its original intent was to regulate the care and use of animals, mainly dogs, cats, and primates, in the laboratory to prevent abuse. Now it is the only federal law in the United States that regulates the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and by dealers. In 1992 a law was passed to protect animal breeders from ecoterrorists. Other laws may include additional species coverage or specifications for animal care and use. Some state and cities have some laws that could be argued to protect against animals’ use in research and testing, primarily animal abuse laws. They usually require a cooperative district attorney to file and pursue criminal charges. Because there are so many other types of animal abuse crimes than testing and research the prosecutorial discretion to investigate and enforce abuse laws puts testing and research animal abuse as a low priority.

The AWA is enforced through a federal agency with the usual enforcement powers of investigation, searches, and fines or penalties.

The AWA is enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and Animal Care (AC). There is an extensive set of rules and regulations in place. The regulations are divided into four sections: definitions, regulations, standards, and rules of practice.

The definitions section describes exactly what is meant by terms used in the AWA. This section is very important as the legal definition of animal is different than its generally understood meaning. For example, the term animal in the act specifically excludes rats of the genus Rattus and mice of the genus Mus as well as birds used in research. There are many such exemptions in the AWA. These exemptions are controversial among animal rights activists because they consider the exemptions as contrary to the intent of the act. The regulations section of the AWA is quite specific. As noted on the USDA’s Web site (USDA 2009), the regulations methodically list subparts for licensing, registration, research facilities, attending veterinarians and adequate veterinary care, stolen animals, records, compliance with standards and holding periods, and other topics such as confiscation and destruction of animals and access to and inspection of records and property. Monitoring these records from large research facilities, both those in compliance and those out of compliance, allowed the USDA to collect large amounts of information. The actual standards for treatment of animals by species are in the next section. Most of the subchapter is the third section that provides standards for specific species or groups of species. Included are sections for cats and dogs, guinea pigs and hamsters, rabbits, nonhuman primates, marine mammals, and the general category of “other warm-blooded animals.” Standards include those for facilities and operations, health and husbandry systems, and transportation. This section is the one animal rights advocates most often seek to have enforced. If the animal rights advocates seek legal redress, they must first exhaust their administrative remedies before a court will accept jurisdiction. Their first step in seeking legal redress, generally for the enforcement of the above conditions, is the focal point of the final section of the act. The final section lists the rules of practice applicable to adjudicating administrative proceedings under the AWA. After exhausting administrative remedies under the act, animals rights activists can then go to court. One problem with the administrative agency issue is that it is very time consuming. The administrative agency, a potential defendant, controls the process and hearings format. Many public interest groups feel this is an unfair requirement because it drains the resources of the nonprofit organization before the issue can be resolved.

Animal Care: What Is Humane?

While there may be agreement that inhumane treatment to animals should be regulated, there is more controversy about what specifically is humane treatment. It is generally tied to the activity around the animal. Again, according to the USDA Web site (USDA 2009), the AWA requires that minimum standards of care and treatment be provided for certain animals bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially, or exhibited to the public. People who operate facilities in these categories must provide their animals with adequate care and treatment in the areas of housing, handling, sanitation, nutrition, water, veterinary care, and protection from extreme weather and temperatures. Although these federal requirements do establish a floor of acceptable standards, there is controversy about whether they go far enough. There is also controversy about how well enforced the existing law is under the present circumstances. Regulated businesses are encouraged to exceed the specified minimum standards under the AWA. Some animals are bought and sold from unregulated sources for testing and research, and this remains a concern.


The AWA regulates the care and treatment of warm-blooded animals with some major exceptions, also known as exemptions. As older legislation from the 1960s, such as the AWA, passes through subsequent Congresses, exemptions or categorical exclusions are legislatively added to accommodate powerful interests and changes in public policy. Farm animals used for food, clothing, or other farm purposes are exempt. This is a large exemption representing powerful industrial agricultural interests. If they were included, argue these interest groups, the costs of production would increase the cost of food and clothing. Cold-blooded animals are exempt from coverage under the act, but some advocates are seeking to have them covered. The use of frogs for science courses is traditional. Many cold-blooded animals are used for training, testing, and research. Retail pet shops are another major exemption if they sell a regular pet to a private citizen. They are covered if they sell exotic or zoo animals or sell animals to regulated businesses. Animal shelters and pounds are regulated if they sell dogs or cats to dealers, but not if they sell them to anyone else. The last big exemption is pets owned by members of the public. However, no one is exempt from criminal prosecutions for animal abuse under state and local laws.

Pet Protection from Animal Testing and Research

Selling stolen or lost pets for research and testing is another aspect of this controversy. To help prevent trade in lost or stolen animals, regulated businesses are required to keep accurate records of their commercial transactions. Animal dealers must hold the animals that they buy for 5 to 10 days. This is to verify their origin and allow pet owners an opportunity to locate a missing pet. This also helps suppress the illegal trade in stolen animals for testing and research. Many pets are lost when a natural disaster occurs. Floods, storms, hurricanes, emergency vehicles, and threatening interruptions of food and shelter cause many pets to get lost. Some pets now have a computer chip implanted in them for tracking purposes. Critics point out that many commercial transactions about animals used in testing and research do not always happen with regulated businesses. The legal definition of regulated research facilities specifically includes hospitals, colleges and universities, diagnostic laboratories, and cosmetic, pharmaceutical, and biotechnology industries. Animal dealers complain about the cost of holding animals that long and the other costs of verifying ownership. Many animal shelters operate on a small budget and must euthanize animals to make room for new arrivals faster than the holding period allows. Rigorous enforcement against these groups could put them out of operation, with the net result of no shelter provision or adoption site for animals.

Humane Standards in Research Facilities

Much of the regulation of animal use in testing and research occurs in research facilities. The standards are slightly higher for dogs and primates. All warm-blooded animals, with some major exemptions, get some veterinary care and animal husbandry. This means that a licensed veterinarian examines the health of the animal, and the animal is kept in a clean, sanitary, and comfortable condition. Some animals require a higher standard of care by law. Regulated research facilities must provide dogs with the opportunity for exercise and promote the psychological well-being of primates used in laboratories. According to the USDA’s Web site (USDA 2009) researchers must also give regulated animals anesthesia or pain-relieving medication to minimize the pain or distress caused by research if the experiment allows. Regulated entities do express some concern about the cost of these additional procedures. The AWA also prohibits the unnecessary repetition of a specific experiment using regulated animals. The regulated entity itself determines how much repetition is unnecessary. One tenet of science is the ability to repeat a given chain of events, such as corneal exposure to a chemical, and get the same result, such as death or blindness. By prohibiting the repetition of the animal-based tests, some of the results may be weaker. The public protection from a chemical may be weaker, and the industry may be exposed to a large class-action negligence suit. Therefore, research procedures or experimentation are exempt from interference when designated as such. This is a large exemption in an area where animals are thought to suffer pain, and where substitutes or alternatives to animals are not used frequently. This is a continuing battleground in this controversy.

AWA has strict monitoring and record-keeping requirements. The lack of records has been a controversy in the past. By keeping records, information about animals used in testing and research can be gathered. The problem was how to require the regulated entity to comply with the AWA and produce necessary records. The solution in this case was to require a committee at the regulated entity and mandate its membership. The law requires research facilities to form an “institutional animal care and use committee.” The purpose of this committee is to establish some place of organizational accountability for the condition of animals at a given research institution. They are primarily responsible for managing aspects of the AWA, especially in regard to the use of animals in experiments. This committee is the point of contact responsible for ensuring that the facility remains in compliance with the AWA and for providing documentation of all areas of animal care. By law, the committee must be composed of at least three members, including one veterinarian and one person who is not associated with the facility in any way.


The controversy around the use of animals for testing will continue because animals will continue to be used for testing. Animal rights groups assert that enforcement of a weak law riddled with exemptions is inadequate and that animals are being abused. One environmental impact of a poorly regulated animal trade is the importation of endangered species under conditions of high mortality. Testing on animals, unlike dogfighting, is done at large institutions often receiving federal research grants. Many of these are universities. When human health considerations are thrown into the equation, animal testing is often justified by researchers despite animal mortality.

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