Thursday, May 12, 2011

Researchers cut back on use of dogs, cats in testing

By Lee Bowman, from Ventura County Star


It once was common for dogs and other pets to be stolen or sold by pounds to dealers who put them into monstrous holding kennels before reselling them to scientific researchers.
Those practices have dwindled in the four decades since outrage from the well-publicized plight of a few dogs brought about the nation's first federal law to protect animals used in biomedical research in 1966.
At the heart of the Animal Welfare Act was concern that pets might be stolen or otherwise acquired by dealers and quickly sold to labs with no chance for rescue or adoption, and that animals bound for research would be badly cared for.
That was the saga of Pepper, a beloved Dalmatian stolen in 1965 from her Pennsylvania home and killed in an experiment at a Manhattan hospital before her family could track her down.
Her story, reported in Sports Illustrated as well as in a photo expose in Life magazine, looked at the awful conditions endured by dogs collected for research at a Pennsylvania kennel. The Life piece was headlined "Concentration Camp for Dogs." The exposes rallied congressional support to protect at least some species of research animals.
Today, the overwhelming number of all animals used in research -- including dogs and cats -- are specifically bred for that purpose. Most medical experiments use animals that are standardized and often genetically modified to mimic some human disease or condition.
Dogs and cats represent only about 0.05 percent of all animals used in U.S. biomedical research, but that's still more than 90,000 animals a year -- with an estimated 3,000 or so collected by a dwindling number of "random-source" dealers.
There are still experiments where scientists say a few stray or donated dogs or cats are needed.
"There are certain diseases and conditions -- arthritis or metabolic disorders, for instance -- where you need to study an older animal. But hardly any breeders keep an animal beyond six months,'' said Dr. Larry Yates, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh who used random-source cats in his early work, but no longer does. He also served on a National Academies of Science committee that examined the secondary market for research animals for a report issued last year.
Although regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the 10 or so random source or "Class B" dealers still operating have come under heavy criticism from inspectors, congressional investigators and animal-protection groups in recent years for problems ranging from poor animal care to sloppy record-keeping. Records are intended to ensure that no stolen animals are used in labs.
"The government inspectors are still spending a huge amount of time to manage this small group of dealers, and we have to wonder about the institutions that are still supporting this practice,'' said Sue Leary, president of the American Anti-Vivisection Society.
Just in March, federal prosecutors charged a dealer -- operating a kennel near Shippensburg, Pa. -- with illegally buying hundreds of dogs from small breeders in at least 10 states for $50 to $75 an animal, giving them false documentation and veterinary certificates and then reselling them to researchers for hundreds of dollars each.
Aside from the dealers, research institutions in 33 states may negotiate with local pounds to acquire animals. In Minnesota and Oklahoma, state law allows researchers to demand that animals be turned over to them. The University of Utah became the latest institution to stop buying animals from shelters this spring after public outcry over the death of a pit bull mistakenly taken from an area animal shelter.
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have laws forbidding pounds from turning over animals to research. The states are Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia.
In the remaining states, pound and shelter policy is dictated by county or city government, not the states. In California, all counties currently have policies banning the sale or donation of animals for research.
Despite a county ordinance banning such transfers, a shelter in Red Bluff, Calif., in 2008 was discovered to have allowed five dogs and eight cats to be "adopted" to a nearby lab that drew their blood for transfusions in veterinary hospitals.
Animal-protection advocates in many areas have challenged city and county agreements to sell animals to labs, but say these arrangements still bring in about a quarter of all the dogs and cats used annually in research.
J.R. Haywood, a researcher and vice president for regulatory affairs at Michigan State University in Lansing, works with rats and baboons in his own diabetes research, still supports continued access to pound animals, although he concedes that the dealers have proved a poor source. He noted the practice has "about disappeared in Michigan," although there is no statewide ban.
"It is ironic that while researchers have reduced the number of cats and dogs we use by half in the past several decades by changing methods or using other animal models, there are still hundreds of thousands of those animals being sacrificed in pounds every year because no one will adopt them," Haywood said. "Wouldn't it be better if we could learn something from them that would help people and animals ... before they're put to sleep?"
Yates and Haywood said there have been discussions about setting up research consortia to obtain and care for pound animals, as well as a plan to have the National Institutes of Health establish breeding colonies where dogs and cats could be kept long enough to develop some of the traits that only come with age. No specific plans have been made.

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