Is animal testing still common?

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Dear Cecil: My wife read on Facebook about businesses still testing their products on animals. She tried to find out through Google how true this is, but she couldn’t get any really clear idea of who was doing what. Is animal testing still prevalent, or are most companies trying to go a different route? Bob, Lansing, Michigan


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

If visions of scientifically tortured baby bunnies keep you up at night, stop reading right now. Anti-testing activist groups may not be in the news, but it’s only because we have so many other things to complain about these days. It still exists, and in full force. There have been no major U.S. federal restrictions on animal testing since the 1966 Animal Welfare Act, passed back when everyone was more concerned with the commies and nuclear war than with the well-being of test monkeys (some of whom were rocketed into space in competition with said commies and didn’t do so well on the return journey).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, it’s not a very stringent law: its guidelines don’t apply to mice, rats, birds, farm animals raised for food and agricultural research, or reptiles and amphibians. It does cover treatment of the cutest ten percent of lab animals — dogs, cats, hamsters, etc. — who presumably have a stronger congressional lobby. Only chimpanzees receive protection from psychological damage, courtesy of the CHIMP Act of 2000. The minimal standards for their housing, feeding, handling, and veterinary care are enforced with $10,000 maximum fines — but considering it costs around $15,000 a year to feed and house a chimp, that’s a pretty negligible sum.

So yes, animal testing is, unlike the animals themselves, alive and well. If your wife couldn’t track down any good, comprehensive numbers for how many animals are involved altogether, that’s because they’re not out there. We do know, though, that in 2013 about 900,000 animals covered under the Animal Welfare Act were killed in research and testing in the U.S., including 170,000 rabbits, 68,000 dogs, and 64,000 nonhuman primates. That’s just the fatalities, and it doesn’t include the mice and rats, which make up the great bulk of lab animals. Noting the growing role of genetically modified animals in research, one independent estimate from 2004 put the total number of animals used annually in the U.S. at 80 million.

It’s not that there’s been no progress. Since the late 1950s the animal welfare movement has been advocating the principles of “replacement, reduction, and refinement”: i.e., (1) using insentient materials — which now include computer simulations as well as things like cell cultures — for testing rather than conscious living creatures; (2) minimizing the number of animal subjects needed to get useful results, via better experiment design, data sharing, etc.; and (3) limiting the amount of actual pain and harm the animals experience. Which all basically makes sense, even leaving ethics aside — for one thing, animal stress can alter test results. And to some extent it’s happening: computer modeling has in fact decreased the need for living subjects in toxicity research. Modeling and in vitro testing still have their limits, though, so 100-percent replacement doesn’t look imminent. Some higher-order test animals (mice, guinea pigs) can be swapped out for lower-order ones (zebra fish, fruit flies); purists take issue, but you can’t please everyone.

The goals of animal testing have changed as well. Activists may still invoke the specter of cosmetics testing to call attention to the animal welfare cause (it’s certainly simpler than firebombing researchers’ houses), but that’s a battle the good guys seem to be winning, however slowly. In 2013 the European Union banned all trade in animal-tested cosmetics; meanwhile, last year China stopped requiring animal testing for certain cosmetic products. Such moves are possible largely because the cosmetics industry has plenty of existing data on skin irritants, and their analyses can be run accurately using test-tube simulations.

Instead, the vast majority of animals are now used for medical and toxicological research — an area that has grown with our increased interest in the health and safety of everyday and industrial chemicals. The EU’s chemical evaluation program, called REACH, will likely require the death of around 2 million animals in its current phase of testing. For the animals this may not be any more pleasant than cosmetics testing, but at least it’s a weightier cause.

There are some research subjects where animal testing may not be pulling its weight: carcinogens, for instance. Multiple animal studies show possible weak links between substances like (e.g.) saccharine and cancer, but no major epidemiological data has been found to indicate clear danger to humans. Comprehensive animal-based cancer studies are time-consuming and expensive, with very high false-positive rates — it’s been estimated 90 percent of clinical drug trials fail because animal trials can’t accurately predict how humans will respond.

At a certain level, I think most people would still agree, better one human in a clinical trial than humans generally, and better a dog than a human. It’s not a perfect system (judging from the number of lawsuits, anyway), but I, for one, would have more trouble sleeping at night without the sacrificial bunnies standing between the diseases and us.

Cecil Adams

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