Every year in the U.S., millions of animals are used as models in biological and medical research to study human disease, injury, development, psychology, and anatomy and physiology. Animals often suffer greatly in these studies, as they are inflicted with diseases, traumas, and pain they would not normally experience in order to mimic human conditions.
Where Do Research Animals Come From?
Considering animals as mere research tools, an entire industry has been built around supplying animals to laboratories. The majority of animals used in experiments are purposely bred for research. Others, like dogs and cats, are bought from random source animal dealers or acquired through pound seizure. Kept in sterile environments with little attention or enrichment, treated roughly for not ‘cooperating,’ and transported under unacceptable conditions, the pain and distress that animals used in research experience actually starts long before they enter a laboratory. These experiments cause even greater suffering, high death rates, and other negative health consequences for the millions of animals used.
What is Done to Research Animals?
Biomedical researchers attempt to answer basic questions about human biology and apply those findings to improve human health. Typically, they rely on animal models, research subjects that mimic a specific malady. However, this is often done with limited success, because many human diseases do not naturally occur in the animals used. Additionally, a large number of scientists use genetic engineering (i.e., inserting, deleting, or otherwise altering the function of genes) or physical, chemical, and/or biological means to cause human conditions or symptoms in animals, ‘creating’ models who may exhibit human diseases. Researchers use these animals to learn about the dynamics of diseases, lifestyle or environmental effects on the disease, or treatment methods, and hope that the findings will relate in some way to people. Because the onset of the disease is intentional and researchers want to understand its process, the animals are not generally treated as human patients would be, and their pain and distress is often part of study protocols.
In Search of Alternatives
Animal research is generally recognized to be costly, time-consuming, and unreliable, and much of this research is neither appropriate nor applicable to humans. Natural differences in physiology, metabolism, and anatomy between humans and other animals lead to very different reactions to various stimuli. In addition, animals are kept in sterile, stressful environments that cause them to develop abnormal physiological and behavioral responses. Besides the obvious ethical and welfare concerns, this also casts doubt on the validity of any results obtained using such animals.
New technologies, alternatives, and clinical and epidemiological studies in humans can provide us better, more relevant answers without causing animal suffering. However, although clinical studies remain a central focus of human medical research, and the use of alternatives is increasing, there is still an over-reliance on the use of animals in research.