We are all used to seeing distressing campaigns for ‘ethical’ cosmetics or to ban animal testing. Those who are against animal testing will often say that it does not work – citing cases such as the thalidomide babies (thalidomide was shown safe in animal tests). Opponents often say that we have moved beyond the need to perform in-humane and cruel tests products on animals – test tube tests on cell lines or latter stage human testing should be sufficient to ensure safety. Is this stance correct or does it put the welfare of animals above a demonstrated human need?
Animal testing will always be an emotive subject and some people condone it for medical research but not for testing cosmetics or soaps. At the current time the United States runs tests on approximately 26 million animals each year for both medical and commercial purposes. This helps to establish whether medicines and other products are safe for humans to use. Such testing is not new but has taken place since about 500BC. There is currently no other way of testing how a substance will interact within a complex living body (as opposed to a cell culture).
So who is right? Here are the top 10 reasons why animal testing is, if not a pleasant thing, both right and necessary.
- The Thalidomide Disaster Shows We Need Animal Testing
In the 1950-60s Thalidomide was used to alleviate morning sickness during pregnancy. Sadly thalidomide had very adverse effects in utero. Many babies died and approximately 15,000 were born with limb defects. Thalidomide was tested in animals and this is used as an argument by many to say that animal testing does not work. What is less well known, however, is that not all the necessary tests were performed. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US did not approve the sale of Thalidomide due to these incomplete tests.
After the problems with Thalidomide were discovered the full range of tests were carried out and it was shown to cause birth defects across a wide range of species. Because of this tragedy it is now a requirement to carry out tests on pregnant animals. Had the full range of tests been carried out in the first place this tragedy would never have occurred. If animal testing is banned there is every possibility that similar tragedies could occur in the future.
- We Eat More Than We Test
While the figure above of 26 million animals used in research each year sounds frighteningly large it is, in fact, quite small. Of those 26 million 95% are rodents (rats, mice etc), birds and fish, relatively few higher mammals are used. The human population of the United States eats about 9 billion chickens each year or more than 340 chickens for each animal used in research.
- Animal Testing on Some Cosmetics is Necessary to Ensure Human Safety
The EU has banned the sale (and marketing) of all cosmetic products with ingredients that have been tested on animals. The EU is not the only part of the world to have done this – India and Israel also have bans in place. The US and China do not, at the present time, have such bans. The FDA does not require animal tests before a product is sold in the US but does advise manufacturers to use appropriate testing and ‘substantiate the safety’ of their products. Animal testing of cosmetics is a legal requirement in China.
Of course ‘cruelty free’ cosmetics are available to buy but this label is often nothing more than a disingenuous marketing ploy. Most companies who make his claim get contractors to undertake the tests on their behalf or use ingredients that have been shown to be safe (through testing on animals in the past). Alternatively companies that do not produce new products can claim that their existing product line is not currently tested on animals even though it will have been in the past.
There are other products which are not medicines but not cosmetics which do need to be tested on animals to ensure that they do not cause harm to humans. Both Europe and the US require potentially toxic substances such as anti-mosquito spray to be to toxicologically tested (on animals) before it can be sold. A ban on testing would ban these products which protect against life threatening diseases such as Malaria and Dengue.
- Animal Testing has the Overwhelming Support of Professionals
In 2011 the respected journal Nature conducted a poll of 1000 scientists in the field of bio-medics. More than 90% felt that it was ‘essential’ to use animals for research testing. One of the respondents (who works with primates, the most contentious area of research) said that when he has allowed lay-people to tour his laboratory to see how his work is conducted approximately 98% of visitors leave understanding the importance of his work and that it is conducted in line with the very highest of ethics.
It is not only scientists who support this stance – the American Heart Association and the Society of Toxicology have, amongst others, backed the use of animal testing. The rationale for this support being to ‘ensure and enhance human and animal health’ and because it is the best way (with the exception of human tests) to detect potential risks to humans and their environment.
- Laws Are In Place to Ensure That Animals Are Treated Humanely
We are all used to the distressing photographs that anti testing campaigners use to further their position. While these photographs depict very distressed animals undergoing horrific experiences most of these photographs are misleading. Many are decades old and depict old fashioned labs and practices that are no longer condoned today. Others show animals that are distressed but only because they have been disturbed by the activists breaking in to their laboratory with harsh lights and loud noises.
In the US the Federal Government has, through the mechanism of the Animal Welfare Act, regulated animal research since 1966. This sets out the minimum acceptable level of housing standards and access to potable water and stipulates a minimum acceptable level of veterinary inspections. Every testing facility or research laboratory that uses animals has to have an Animal Care and Use Committee which will oversee the humane treatment of test subjects. This committee will check the proposals and will not allow the research to take place if a viable alternative is available. All animals used in testing must be given pain relief if necessary unless that would affect the results of the research. If a research facility gets funding from the Public Health Service it must comply with the Public Health Service’s policy on the use of laboratory animals. Other countries have similarly stringent welfare regimes.
- Well Treated Animals Give Better Test Results
In order for the results of research to be accurate it is important that the animals used for testing are kept happy and healthy. They have access to veterinary care and are fed healthy balanced diets. Most researchers support the Three R concept of refinement (making the experience as painless as possible for the animal involved), reduction (develop techniques to use fewer animals in research wherever possible or get more information from the same number of animals) and replacement (use alternative methods wherever possible).
This stance is embodied in government requirements in the UK and by the American Veterinary Medical Association, The Society of Toxicology and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the US and the majority of institutions are subject to a code of ethics that require animals to be treated humanely and for any pain and suffering to be minimized.
- Animals Used in Testing Often Have Short Lifespans
Most of the animals used in research (rodents, frogs etc) have short lifespans and reproduce quickly. This means that researchers can test how a medicine interacts in a living organism over a whole lifetime or whether any effects are passed on to their offspring (as mentioned above tests are now required to be done on pregnant animals in the hope of preventing another Thalidomide type case.
- Some Tests Can Not – Ethically – Be Done on Humans
Medical research is a modern necessity. While humans now enjoy a longer and healthier life than at any other time in history there are still genetic diseases or other scourges such as dementia or cancer that researchers are trying to cure. The treatment of these diseases has an economic impact on society as well as, of course, the tremendous emotional impact on friends and family.
The research into possible treatments involves potentially very dangerous substances with unknown side effects and some of the research requires the manipulation of genes. It would be unethical to expose human test subjects to the potential risks involved in this type of testing without first ensuring that the treatment was proved safe in animal test subjects. For this reason the World Medical Association Declaration made in Helsinki in 1964 requires that no human testing can take place until animal trials have been done.
- The Human Body Is Complex and Animals Are a Better Substitute than Computer Models
The human body is incredibly complex – more complex than computer models can (at present) simulate with any degree of accuracy. It is possible to do basic tests on cell lines but this does not replicate the complex interconnected processes of a live body and can never predict potential side effects on different organs within the body.
Some diseases or conditions such as high blood pressure are dynamic and as such have to be studied in a working, interconnected biological system (in essence a living being). As alternatives to animal testing are developed it will be increasingly possible to rely on computer simulations and models for early phase testing. These models, however, are only made possible because of the results of animal research used to design and make them. Some organs and processes (particularly the brain) go far beyond the ability of even our fastest and most powerful computers to model. Attempts to model a mouse brain resulted in a simulation that ran for 10 seconds 10 times slower than in reality. This model was designed on the world’s most powerful computer which has much more processing power than the computers available in normal laboratories. For the present time computer testing will be able to replace some but not all animal tests required before trials can move on to human subjects.
In the meantime animals make good test subjects because they are very similar to humans. Mammals share a common ancestry which means that our organs, circulatory system, endocrine system, nervous system etc and work in very similar ways. The DNA of mice is 98% similar to that of humans. Chimpanzee DNA is 99% similar. Animals suffer from a lot of the same diseases as humans – insulin to treat diabetes was developed from research on dogs.
1. Animal Testing Helps Save Human Lives
The major medical discoveries of the last 100 years have all been made as a result of animal research and testing. If scientists were not able to test on animals the pace of research would slow and it would take longer to develop potentially lifesaving treatments for people.
Without animal research diabetics would not have access to lifesaving insulin. Polio, a heartbreaking disease that causes paralysis and sometimes death in young children was a disease that worried parents around the world. From the start of a global vaccination program in 1988 the number of cases have reduced by 99%. This pernicious disease that caused untold misery is now endemic in only three countries in the world. Everywhere else families can sleep easily because their children are protected by an easy vaccination. This significant achievement would never have been possible without the research that was done on the disease in monkeys.
These are not the only examples, lifesaving leukemia treatments, antibiotics and anesthetics have, amongst other advances, all been tested on animals. It is not only treatments for diseases that are tested in animals. Today transplant surgery is an accepted and routine (if amazing) surgery. The technique for the first successful kidney transplant was tested in dogs http://ca-biomed.org/csbr/pdf/fs-whynecessary.pdf.
It is not just humans who benefit from testing. The vaccines we give our pets to protect them against rabies, parvo or leukemia would not exist without animal testing indeed more than 80 treatments that were initially researched for human use are now used in animals. . Animal testing has even helped to save species from extinction most notably the Californian Condor and the black-footed ferret. These benefits could not be replicated through the use of alternative methods.
Most people love animals – whether it is a pet dog or cat or the wider range of animals that we see on a daily basis. Most people also recoil at the thought of deliberately causing harm or suffering to any creature. This is one of the reasons why animal testing is such a controversial area – can the benefit of research ever be worth the price paid in terms of animal suffering?
Animal testing is not, however the only way in which we use animals – we farm them for food, use them to police our streets or identify explosives in war zones. In the context of other uses the numbers of animals actually used in testing is relatively small.
Most scientists involved in research subscribe to the 3R (refine, reduce, replace) principal set out above, animal tests are expensive and no one wants to test on animals where viable alternatives exist. Where tests are necessary they are carried out on smaller animals such as rodents wherever possible – very few tests use higher mammals such as dogs or pigs and even fewer tests are done on primates. The animals used in testing have a good quality of life, they are well fed, well treated and given enrichment activities to prevent boredom. When they are used in tests they are anesthetized to ensure that they do not feel pain.
Without animal testing we would not have the cures we do have for diseases such as diabetes or asthma. We would not have developed vaccines to prevent illnesses like polio and we would not have learned how to make transplants work or install pacemakers. Some of these tests could not, ethically, be done on humans without prior animal testing and viable alternatives to animal testing are not yet available for all stages of trials needed before a treatment can be tested on humans.
Animal research saves lives, both human and animal. Ask a parent who is watching their child die of cancer if they would oppose animal testing if it would lead to a cure. Ask family watching a loved one deal with the long slow decline of Alzheimer’s whether they would refuse a treatment that had been tested on animals. Animal testing may not be ideal, we may strive to replace it and hope that someday it will no longer be needed but for the moment it is a vital necessity.