In General Knowledge

Animal Testing: Beyond the Laboratory Door

Animal Testing: Beyond the Laboratory Door

Science has certainly made a huge progress in the past few centuries, but humanity, not so much. Often during Man’s attempts to explore the world and unravel the mysteries behind its biology, he ends up doing the planet and its inhabitants more harm than good. Human development, maintenance, and welfare are some of the most important goals of any civilization, and atrocities, so many along humans’ long mostly bloody history, have been committed in the name of achieving them. In this article, we will disregard the wrongs Man has done to his fellow men and to the soil, oceans, and skies of his Earth and we’ll go a little “cuter.” We will follow the little creatures always on the run away from us, under a kitchen table or inside a tree, the little cute living beings we so love to watch and admire and, in some cases, cuddle with. This is about animals and their exploitation in experimentation, research, and Animal Testing.

Before we ask the question of what is animal testing, we must first recognize the age-old clash between science and ethics or common humanity. Humans realized after a long while of explorations that their curiosity to learn and understand their surroundings was bigger than their ethical considerations. That is probably why the need to regulate research and experimentation arose, to assure benefits and eliminate or at least minimize the harm. Every respectful research organization must obtain an ethical approval (and consent if the subjects are humans) before the experiment is carried out.

What Is an Ethical Approval?

A research is said to have obtained an ethical approval if it is confirmed to abide by a set of fundamental moral principles that assure the scientist’s obligation to not harm any of the humans (or animals) being studied, as well as the scientist’s responsibility towards the public, the science community, and his students. The approval follows the guidelines of the Declaration of Helsinki (1964) when the research concerns humans, and it follows a number of country-specific agreements when the research involves animal testing.

What Is Animal Testing?

Animal testing or animal experimentation is the use of non-human subjects in a scientific research. The experiments might merely involve natural observations, where the team of scientists studies the behavior of the animals or their reactions to different situations or surroundings. Or the experiments could be more invasive, including intentionally diseasing the animals, exposing them to painful or very stressful situations to study their physical reactions, or “sacrificing” them to study their insides. The experiments are conducted in universities, pharmaceutical companies, and research organizations. The research could concern drugs tests, genetics, behavioral studies, toxicology, developmental biology, cosmetic testing, among many others. Research animals can be either bred specifically for laboratories use or caught in the wilds and sold by dealers to the research organizations. Animals are usually euthanized after the experiments are done. Euthanasia methods must be specially designed to allow the animal the least amount of pain and distress while being put to sleep. Animal testing could also be called in vivo testing or vivisection.

In Vivo and In Vitro Testing

If you happen to come across research papers often, you will probably be familiar with those two terms: in vivo testing and in vitro testing. In vivo testing is the studies performed on wholly alive organisms (humans, animals, or plants) to test the biological effects of the subject of the experiments on them. In vivo is Latin for “within the living.” In vitro testing is the studies performed in laboratories using artificial environments like, for example, test tubes. In vitro is Latin for “within the glass.”

What Is Vivisection?

Vivisection literally means to cut up a creature alive. The word is used for surgeries performed on living organisms with the intention of studying their internal structure or internal biological functions. By living organisms, in this case, we mean animals with a central nervous system. Vivisection is never performed on humans, and when it is, it is considered torture. Because the word implies cruelty and suffering, the scientific community hardly ever uses it, replacing it with the more easy-on-the-ear names: animal testing or animal experimentation. Organizations against animal testing do use the name almost exclusively though for the strong meaning it delivers and the pain and agony it implies.

Now that we have gone through the terminology and the few differences between each name and each procedure, let us take a look on the history of animal testing and along the way try to answer a few more questions: why animal testing is bad, and, on the other hand, why animal testing is good? What are animal testing pros and cons? Are we for or against animal testing? And can we really find a conclusive answer for the last question?

Here, take a break

History of Animal Testing

The use of animal experimentation dates as far back as the Greeks, 4 centuries BCE. Aristotle and Erasistratus were documented to be among the first to ever use animals in research. An Arabic physician, Avenzoar, in the 12th century introduced animal testing as a method to confirm the validity of surgical procedures on animals before using them on humans. Soon after that, Ibn al-Nafis used animal tests to provide a description of the circulation of blood in mammals. The scientific advances, and the names, will sound more familiar in the following. In the 18th century, Luigi Galvani applied electricity to a dead frog’s leg; the leg moved, proving there was a link between electricity and animation. In the 19th century, Louis Pasteur demonstrated the germ theory using experimentations on sheep and also then found a medication method for rabies using many rabbits and dogs in the process. Around the same time, Ivan Pavlov used dogs to reach a description of classical conditioning, a very interesting concept that is still continuously experimented with. In the 20th century, research on animals contributed to many medical advances, including organs transplant techniques, anti-transplant rejection medications, and antibiotics, like penicillin.

The history of animal testing does sound very impressive, but perhaps because this is the side of the coin history cared to document. The other side might be too inhumane we’d rather not think about it or write it down. The animal testing debate of whether the issue was wholly ethical or not finally gained recognition in the 19th century in the British Parliament after the first animal protection law was replaced by the Cruelty to Animals Act in 1876, to be the first law regulating the use of animals in research. But more about the laws and regulations comes later.

Types of Animals

Millions and millions of animals are yearly used in laboratories, medical schools, and pharmaceutical companies. The animals vary between guinea pigs, mice, rats, gerbils, hamsters, cats, and dogs and invertebrates like Drosophila melanogaster and Caenorhabditis elegans. Mice are the most commonly used animals in research, mostly because they represent a good model for inherited human diseases. Mice are not costly and have a fast reproduction rate and share 99% of their genes with humans, thus allowing the results to relate easily to humans. Rabbits and frogs are also frequently used in animal experimentation, in addition to fish, like the zebrafish.

According to UAR (Understanding Animal Research), here are a few facts about animal testing and the different types of animals involved in various research fields.

  • Because of the similarities between the neurological system of cats and that of humans, cats have been researched on to acquire a better understanding of the spinal cord, eye disorders, and nervous system-related researches.
  • Guinea pigs have contributed to the discovery of Vitamin C, adrenaline, and vaccines for diphtheria. Guinea pigs are currently used in studies involving the respiratory and the immune system
  • The first mammal cloned from an adult cell was a sheep named Dolly, opening the door for many other cloning successes.
  • Dogs have been the base of diabetes research that has eventually detected the lack of insulin to be the main cause of the disease. Studies on dogs have also contributed to the development of open-heart surgeries techniques

Each animal owns a few biological traits that deem it suitable for a particular field of research, something we humans should be endlessly grateful for. Animal testing is of course a winning deal for us humans, but what about the other party involved: the animals?

Effects of Testing on Animals

The arguments when it comes to the effects of testing on animals can vary a great deal. People against animal testing would state a list of cruelties animals in research go through every day, with each new experiment. On the other side, science has different sayings on the issue. Science and philosophy ask the question of whether animals feel pain the same way we do. What is pain and how is it connected to consciousness? Are animals conscious enough to suffer pain, distress, or stress just like we humans do or are they not aware and are only moved by their survival instinct? Does the ability of pain depend on the types of animals in question? Are some more developed/evolved animals more capable of feeling than other less evolved ones? Let us present each argument and we’ll leave the answers for you.

The suffering animals go through in their day-to-day short life is one of the obvious hard to disregard cons of animal testing. Because most of the animals are bred specifically for laboratory use, they end up living their entire lives in small cages, behind cold metallic bars. The stressful and the monotonous life conditions have very bad effects on the animals psyche. As you may know, animals are susceptible to depression, so even in the lack of research or experimentation, the laboratory life alone can be very cruel on the animals, providing no solace, no natural day/night cycles, and no freedom. When the animals are picked for the experiment, what they are to go through can vary from mild discomfort to extreme pain and death. Some research intentionally places the animals in very stressful conditions to study the reactions, and some research purposefully induces depression. A number of experiments are designed to deprive the animal of sleep or of comfort; others are designed to completely immobilize it. These conditions could go on for days and for months. The testing of drugs might involve intentionally diseasing the animals then putting them to death, as well as the studies on toxics which naturally include causing a serious amount of pain. Electrocuting the animals or cutting them up alive is not a rare procedure either. In some cases, animals are left to watch their cage mates or fellow animals go under the knife, an experiment so traumatizing that the results acquired of the animals afterwards might not be valid for the unnatural state the little creatures have already been experiencing.

The previous paragraph might alone construct a sufficient reply to why animal testing is bad; in the following, we will present a viewpoint scientists adopt on the idea of suffering in animals.
Rene Descartes has argued centuries ago that animals are not capable of feeling pain as we humans do because they lack consciousness, or what religions would call a “soul.” The prevalent viewpoint currently is that animals are to some level conscious; they are capable of simple thoughts and are capable of feeling, learning, and empathizing. The “Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals” states that “the ability to experience and respond to pain is widespread in the animal kingdom… Pain is a stressor and, if not relieved, can lead to unacceptable levels of stress and distress in animals.” The guide then asserts the necessity of using anesthesia to relieve animal pain but not when it compromises the scientific results. The priority here goes of course to the human interest, while maintaining that we must be as humane as possible where humanity won’t harm “the scientific aspects of the research protocol.”

Animal Testing Statistics

According to PETA, 1.28 million animals are used in experimentation in the United States alone, in addition to an estimated 100 million mice and rats. In Canada, an estimated 3.38 million animals are used in research, 145.632 of them prone to ““severe pain near, at, or above the pain tolerance threshold of unanesthetized conscious animals.” In the United Kingdom, 4.11 million experiments are carried out on animals, 2.95 million of them with no anesthesia. According to the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV), 100 million animals are used in animal research around the world every year, with 10-11 million of them in the European Union alone. Often the huge numbers presented in animal testing statistics don’t include mice and rats, mainly because they are purpose-bred in laboratories. The numbers also don’t include fruit flies, shrimps, worms, and the likes. According to the Humane Society, for a pesticide to be registered, at least 50 experiments are required, using 12.000 animals in the process. Most animal testing statistics are never accurate, partially because animals bred in laboratories reproduce fast and are killed at the end of the experiment, making obtaining an accurate figure a difficult if not an impossible task.

By now you’ve probably read enough to know that there are a lot of harm done and a lot of benefits achieved from animal testing. To make a well-educated opinion on the matter we cannot disregard the benefits because the process is cruel, but we can ask a better question: are there available alternatives to animal testing? Can we avoid torturing and killing millions of animals but still manage to manufacture drugs and medical procedures tested and tried enough to assure safety for humans? We answer this question next.

Alternatives to Animal Testing

Some scientists argue that the results acquired from research on animals are not necessarily applicable on humans. They also add that the unnatural states of stress, fear, or pain that the animals endure might negatively affect the results, compromising the credibility of their safety for humans. The anti-animal testing society add the previous reasons to why animal testing is bad and conclude the need for alternatives that deliver better more human-related, and definitely more humane, outputs. One of the common alternatives is the in vitro testing we mentioned before. One of its methods is the “organ-on-chip.” Organs-on-chips contain human cells developed to mimic the structure and function of human organs. These environments can be used in drug research, toxicity research, and disease research. Scientists also developed a synthetic combination that mimics a human liver to test for toxics, a human cell-derived skin model to test for allergies, and five tests that can detect the contaminants in drugs using human blood cells. Computer programs can also, to a great level, simulate the human biology and the development of different diseases. There are computer techniques that can decide the effects of a certain substance based on the known effects of similar substances. Computerized human-patient simulators can also be provided to medical schools to exercise and learn on a more true-to-life environment. Finally, in cases where safety can be assured, human volunteers can join in experimentations for drug trails, with very small doses of the drug and the continuous monitoring of the subject.

Radical scientists, on the other hand, insist that computerized models or in vitro testing can never simulate the livelihood of actual cells or the biology of real live animals accurately. The argument goes to assert that nature can still be surprising and chaotic, while artificial systems would always follow the rules of their manufacturers.

So, yes, alternatives to animal testing do exist and are, to the most part, valid options. But the animal testing debate continues.

Animal Testing Debate: The Ethical Dilemma

Rarely can we humans classify something as pure black or pure white. When an issue is that controversial, we tend to never agree on one particular opinion. What are the fundamentals? What are the bases we cannot shake and must build against or for arguments on? The bases here could be that scientific research is important and must be sustained for human benefit. Another base concept is that we must not harm weaker creatures just because they are. We have no biological advantage over the rest of the many many other creatures except for our wits, which is not a good enough reason to exploit or torture them. What it comes down to is what is our priority, human interest or animal welfare? We’ll definitely choose human interest, but let us be more specific now. What is more important, a new cure for aids or animal welfare? A new cure for aids.

OK, what is more important, a fancy brand new glittery lipstick or animal welfare? Animal welfare must take the priority here. Alright, last question: if we can manufacture a new cure for aids using artificial non-animal methods, then what is more important, an animal-based cure for aids or animal welfare? The answer here depends on how you viewed the previous passages and which scientific opinion would you choose to adopt. But as for most, we could say, we would choose animal welfare. We would choose the safety and happiness of millions of animals over a stubborn preference of old traditional, often inhumane, ways.

The cosmetics industry requires thousands of experiments on live animals every year. In these experiments, the animals have their fur shaved and have chemicals rubbed on their skin to test for allergies or skin irritations. This cruelty is unnecessary and serves no greater good. According to, 92% of the experimental drugs tried on animals fail in humans, either for their dangerous side effects or merely because they don’t work. The millions of animals involved in said drugs suffered and died in vain, also serving no greater good.

So, yes, human interest is our priority, but that doesn’t justify laziness or closed-mindedness when it comes to new valid alternatives. We must admit to ourselves first before we admit to the world that the method we have in hand, though has been working for centuries, is inhumane, needs strict regulations, and must soon be replaced with a functional permanent substitute.

Animal Testing Laws and Regulations

The laws dedicated to regulate animal research vary from one country to another. In the European Union, Directive 2010/63/EU on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes offers the general guidelines for animal experimentations. It was implemented in 2013 to replace 1986’s EU’s directive. In the United Kingdom, the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 obligates experiments to have a project license in which the number of animals and their types are specified, a certificate that assures the adequacy of the staff, and a personal license of each scientist or technician involved in the experiment. The Animal Welfare Act in Germany is wholly utilitarian, that is, weighing the pros against the cons. The German act asserts that there must be a good reason to place an animal in harm.

Japan doesn’t have a law issued particularly for research animals; the issue is though addressed according to the more general rules of the Law of Humane Treatment and Management of Animals. NEAVS divides animal testing regulations in the United States into 3 entities: the Animal Welfare Act, The USDA, and the IACUC. The act is said to cover only 10% of the animals used in research and even this small percentage hardly gets minimal protection. The USDA is the US Department of Agriculture, the institute responsible for enforcing the Animal Welfare Act. Finally, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUC) are committees established by the research institutions themselves as per the Animal Welfare Act requirements. The committees are meant to “oversee and evaluate all aspects of the institution’s animal use and care program,” and their members are selected by the institution, which of course might be a conflict of interests.

The main principle all laws and regulations follow is The Three Rs. The Three Rs are guidelines for the ethical use of animals in research and are as follows:

  • Replacement: when a valid alternative is possible and achieves the same results, the animal testing method must be replaced by it.
  • Reduction: using procedures that endangers the fewest number of animals.
  • Refinement: choosing the procedure with the least amount of pain, distress, or suffering.

The laws mentioned above might not be satisfactory for any worried humanitarian and are full of loopholes and prone to constant abuse. Thus, civilian efforts attempt to step in and fill the empty gaps.

PETA on Animal Testing

PETA is short for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and is a large non-profit organization aiming at eliminating the suffering and abuse of animals in all aspects of life. PETA’s slogan is “animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any other way,” clarifying the 4 main aspects of animal abuse: food, industry, entertainment, and research. On animal testing an article on the PETA website states “There are some medical problems that can probably only be cured by testing on unwilling people, but we don’t do it because we recognize that it would be wrong. We need to extend this same concern to other living, feeling beings, regardless of what species they may be.”

PETA is famous for aggressive campaigns and is supported by a number of celebrities. Their opposition of animal testing is based on its unaccountability and its inhumanity; they also promote the use of alternatives and encourage their members to volunteer for human testing of vaccines.

Civilian efforts, campaigns, demonstrations, boycotting, and petitions have contributed to a lot of victories for the animal rights movements and for, we may say, humanity as well.

What about Insects?

There are no statistics on the numbers of insects used (and killed) in experimentations every day, or every year, probably because insects are not thought to process pain or feelings as more evolved animals do. Flies and worms are used in many aspects of research and no laws whatsoever regulate their killing or their vivisection. For more on what science has to say on pain in the less evolved species and the question of whether they should have their share of rights, give this a read.

Is Testing on Animals a “Sacrifice”?

Now that you’re familiar with almost all the facts about animal testing, can you construct a strong opinion on the matter? Now that you know the pros and cons of animal testing, are you for or against it? Or would you too adopt a utilitarian point of view and think of the greater good?

Whatever is your response to the previous questions, please choose your answer based on your humanity not your political correctness. Scientists often choose the word “sacrifice” when speaking of killing or mutilating small defenseless animals. The word sacrifice has good connotations; it implies honor and love and most of all it implies choice, and animals don’t really have a choice here.

Our views will differ and ethics and philosophy and science and human interest will all intermingle and the matter would be too grey to come up with a “right” or a “wrong,” but as you think it through, don’t manipulate the terminology to make a cruel process sound more humane, or more beautiful. There’s nothing beautiful about putting a weaker creature in pain, even if that pain would then cure cancer. The first step to solve this problem is to admit it is a problem and that even though we might, for now, resort to a brutal and merciless practice to achieve a greater interest, we don’t aim to continue doing it, and we don’t aim to normalize it on the ear, and we don’t aim to accept it as OK.

Animals are our friends and we are destined to share the planet together. If you come to find yourself indifferent to their suffering, let us remind you: we are but one species in a kingdom of millions. Earth is our homeland. And no one owes us a “sacrifice.”

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