Is animal testing still common?
January 30, 2015
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
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
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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