VA Told to Reduce Reliance on Dogs in Research

A committee of experts—convened at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to review whether it is “necessary” for the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to continue using dogs in biomedical research to fulfill its mission—has published its final report. After nearly two years of deliberation, the committee of researchers, physicians, veterinarians, lawyers, and bioethicists concluded that the use of dogs is “scientifically necessary for only a few areas of current [VA] biomedical research.” In addition to listing the types of research for which laboratory dogs should no longer be used (for example, diabetes, narcolepsy, or primary pharmacological studies), the report encouraged a shift toward clinical trials with companion dogs who naturally develop some of the same diseases as humans, adding that these dogs can also benefit from the research in which they participate. 

The report also pointed out several deficiencies regarding the animal component of the VA’s research protocols, such as inadequate justification for the relevance of the proposed study to veterans’ health, why dogs were needed, and how investigators arrived at the number of dogs they were requesting. Certain research protocols also lacked input from key veterinary professionals to safeguard the welfare of research dogs, for example in studies where individual dogs underwent multiple surgeries. (The Animal Welfare Act discourages subjecting animals to more than one major operative experiment unless certain specific requirements are met.)

Finally, while acknowledging that current federal regulations “provide a foundation for the assessment of well-being,” the committee encouraged the VA to look toward international regulations and guidelines, which are based on more recent literature and higher standards of care. The report offers a number of recommendations for reducing the VA’s use of laboratory dogs and improving their welfare. It recommended funding independent literature searches that emphasize replacement of dogs, not just a reduction in numbers.

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