Animal research: necessary evil... or moral good? - Veterinary Practice
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Animal research: necessary evil… or moral good?

argues that scientists, including
veterinary scientists, are
motivated by the desire to push
back the boundaries of
knowledge for the benefit of
both people and animals

THE use of animals in scientific research remains a contentious issue that sits uncomfortably with much of the general public and, I suspect, some veterinary surgeons and nurses. While 87% of respondents to a recent MORI poll supported animal research in some circumstances, half thought it should only be used for lifethreatening diseases, and one in three actively objected to it.1 There is obviously little enthusiasm for using animals in basic research or for diseases that are perceived as being less than lifethreatening. It’s really not clear where the public stand on the use of animals for veterinary research. What strikes me about this discussion is the slightly bizarre dissociation of animal research from all other uses of animals.


While it seems as if an animal life should only be extinguished in a lab if it will result in a breakthrough in the treatment of cancer or heart disease, the same people are often strangely blasé about the animals that sacrificed themselves to end up on their plates. Paradoxically, we are more at ease with something that is – frankly – a luxury, than science that has enabled the development of anaesthetics, antibiotics and painkillers. Science that underlies not only human, but also veterinary medicine. But surely animal research is different from meat production? Not just a clean kill but invasive, painful procedures, poor housing, and a miserable life? Any time spent in animal research establishments or speaking to the technicians who care for the animals dispels this caricature. I recently attended the annual congress of the Institute of Animal Technology – the professional body of animal technologists in the UK and Europe – and left feeling somewhat humbled by the incredible expertise in animal care, behaviour, handling and medical procedures demonstrated by UK technologists. Most of us could only dream of patients who jump onto the table and present a leg for blood sampling, but training of animals prior to the start of experimental work ensures that many procedures are relatively stress-free for animals and staff.
Animal technologists were sharing new handling techniques specific to different rat species: species-specific behaviour means that what works for one won’t work for another.

Highly impressive skills

Watching an experienced handler calmly catch and examine rodent after rodent with a minimum of fuss was a joy to behold. (I was picturing myself scrabbling about at the bottom of a cage trying to prise a hamster from under its wheel, then bleeding from a bite wound to the finger during the rest of the consultation.)
And the skills of some of the technologists are highly impressive: one shared his technique for dating pregnancy in mice (yes, really) using ultrasound. Let’s hope news doesn’t get out, lest the public expect us to provide a similar service! Environmental enrichment for species from rodents and rabbits to pigs and primates includes Kongs, balls, systems of tunnels and retreats, foraging boards and puzzles. Diets are tailored to the needs of the species and strain (including genetically modified strains with more specific needs) and evaluated regularly. It’s all in stark contrast to the average bored, understimulated pet dog, or rabbit sitting alone in a hutch. Just over 3.5 million procedures are carried out each year in the UK, which might sound like a lot until you realise that we eat 2.5 billion animals a year.2 Nearly half of the procedures carried out involve breeding, and 69% of all procedures are classified as mild, meaning that they are comparable to what would happen in the average veterinary consultation (such as injections and blood sampling).3,4

Un-shocking nature

When invasive procedures are carried out, adequate anaesthesia and analgesia must be provided. Eighty-one per cent of animals used are rodents, 18% are fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds, 1.3% are dogs, cats, or other mammals, with only 0.07% being primates.5 The number of dogs used is about half of the number of unwanted strays euthanased every year in the UK.2 Given the un-shocking nature of most of what happens in labs, why the continued unease about animal research? Partly, the secrecy around animal research which grew with the threat of animal rights extremists means that most of us just don’t know much about it. As a teenager, my main source of information about
animal research was from animal rights stalls in the town centre, displaying pictures that I subsequently found out were many years out of date or completely unrepresentative of what happens in UK labs.

Welcome views

It’s to be welcomed that organisations like Pro-Test have arisen to counter the animal rights lobby, and charities like the British Heart Foundation now openly discuss the contribution of animal research to the development of novel treatments.6,7 However, I think there are more fundamental reasons why we are uncomfortable about the use of animals for instrumental gain to human society. Ideas central to animal rights philosophy – that there is equivalence between humans and animals in moral status, cognitive abilities, or intrinsic worth – have gradually become commonplace in wider society. Over the course of the 20th
century the prevailing opinion changed from one where animals were viewed as commodities who gained value through their social roles, to the view that animals have intrinsic value, inand-of themselves. This gradual change in perspective has been reflected in the changing wording of the RCVS declaration. In the early 20th century the declaration was a pledge to uphold the interests of the RCVS and the honour and dignity of the profession, but the concept of animal welfare was introduced and
gradually prioritised such that we now promise that our “constant endeavour will be to ensure the welfare of … animals” (C. Boulton, personal communication, 19th May 2011).

Different perspectives

Yet the instrumental use of animals is still central to our society and day to day life and we still treat animals largely according to socially given roles. A rat can be valued as a pet, be treated as an instrument in a lab, or be inhumanely exterminated as
vermin, and most people move easily between these perspectives.
While we may not consciously apprehend it, I believe that many
people are unsettled by the inherent tension between viewing animals as sentient creatures with intrinsic value, and using them instrumentally. The rise of the idea that animals have equivalence to humans is not based on radical discoveries in science. Despite regular newspaper headlines suggesting that chimpanzees are selfaware or that dogs feel guilty, there is no convincing evidence (or, in fact, good reason to believe) that animals have anything close to the rich inner life that we experience (see Just Another Ape?8 for an excellent critical review of the literature). What has happened during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, however, is that we have been taken over by a generalised misanthropy that is becoming engrained in our culture. A century that saw two World Wars, the Holocaust, nuclear weapons, the Cold War, and the failure of socialist experiments drastically undermined our confidence in our own species. We now tend to view humanity in
entirely negative terms – as selfish, arrogant, and destructive – and ignore the sociality, altruism, creativeness, and ambition to change things for the better that could equally well be used to define us. This idea permeates nearly every debate and it is through this prism that we understand animals and the natural world. We contrast animals to humanity and see them as untarnished, innocent, and noble. In the process we downplay our own exceptional abilities and exaggerate those of other species.

Important difference

Despite living with this backdrop, most people still intuitively feel that there is something importantly different about humans and animals: otherwise we simply could not eat them, take away their liberty, or impose medical procedures like neutering. These activities continue but any discussion about them takes on an apologetic nature. Even those who promote animal research now say things like “No one wants to use animals in research… Animal research is considered a last resort.”9 While the authors of these
arguments might think that this will reassure the public, it also sends out the message that there is something uniquely problematic about animal research. If even the scientists don’t
want to do this research, it must be pretty bad! Animal research is an area that the veterinary profession often seems to be silent on. It might be that vets are reluctant to state an opinion and would prefer to be seen to be neutral on the issue. However, silence is not necessarily interpreted as neutrality. Instead, it can give the impression that we don’t support animal research but feel that we can’t say so publicly. The public looks to the veterinary profession for leadership on such issues and silence may further undermine support for animal research. It also leaves colleagues working in
research exposed to the full glare of the spotlight, and alone to make the case for the science that the entire profession relies on.
When the profession does state an opinion it tends to be couched in apologetic terms, emphasising that it respects “the intrinsic value and sentience of animals”, and supports the reduction and replacement of animal use and the continuing of the strict controls under which animal research operates.10 While highlighting the level of regulation that scientists are subject to
has the unfortunate effect of suggesting that they might be wantonly torturing animals for fun if they weren’t reined in, arguments about reducing and replacing animal experiments reinforce the idea that this is somehow worse than the other ways
we use animals. After all, vets rarely argue that we should reduce and replace the use of animals for food or as pets.

Pushing back boundaries

Perhaps it’s time to recognise that scientists, including veterinary
scientists, are not interested in torturing animals but are motivated by the desire to push back the boundaries of knowledge for the benefit of people and animals. Given society’s general acceptance of using animals for instrumental ends, such as for food, then using a relatively small number of animals to increase our knowledge of diseases and potentially relieve the suffering of vast numbers of humans and animals should be seen as a moral good, not a necessary evil. It is essential that we remember that part of what makes our species unique is our drive to understand and improve the world around us, in the process reducing the burden of disease and creating better conditions for ourselves and the animals that we live alongside.

  • Many thanks to Clare Boulton of the RCVS Charitable Trust for research on the RCVS declaration.
  1. Ipsos MORI (2010) Views on Animal Experimentation. Available at: www.ipsosmori. com/DownloadPublication/1343_sri -views-on-animal-experimentation- 2010.pdf. Accessed 12th Sept, 2011.
  2. Understanding Animal Research, www.understandinganimalresearc… about_research/animals_society. Accessed 12th Sept 2011.
  3. Understanding Animal Research, www.understandinganimalresearc… about_research/areas_of_research. Accessed 12th Sept 2011.
  4. Understanding Animal Research, www.understandinganimalresearc… faqs. Accessed 12th Sept 2011.
  5. Understanding Animal Research, www.understandinganimalresearc… about_research/types_of_animals. Accessed 12th Sept 2011.
  6. Pro-Test, Accessed 12th Sept 2011.
  7. British Heart Foundation, uk/research/mending-broken-hearts.aspx. Accessed 12th Sept 2011.
  8. Guldberg, H. (2010). Just Another Ape? Imprint Academic.
  9. Understanding Animal Research, www.understandinganimalresearc… about_research. Accessed 12th Sept 2011.
  10. BVA (March 2008) Policy Statement: Use of Animals in Research. Available at:… mals_research.pdf. Accessed 12th Sept 2011.

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