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Animals in Research

Research utilizing animals has contributed greatly to our understanding of nature and the pathophysiology of disease. Animal research not only plays an essential role in improving human health, but in many cases benefits the care and treatment of the animals themselves. Yet the use of animals in research is a matter of significant controversy. Animals rights groups, many of whom consider the life of an animal as morally equivalent to that of a human, eschew all animal research no matter what the apparent justification.

By contrast most scientists and much of the public supports animal research if it is carried out humanely and if research animals are treated well. Often, the priority that these individuals accord animal life is based on distinctions between species and their proximity to humans in the evolutionary ladder.

Finally, there is general agreement among those who advocate the use of animals in research that there must be appropriate scientific support to justify experiments using animals and the number of animals to be studied. This is accomplished at research institutions through a mechanism known as the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). The IACUC reviews proposed projects involving animals to ensure they are meeting certain scientific and humane standards. These standards are articulated in part by the principles of humane research on animals as defined by the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to the PHS principles:

  • procedures must avoid or minimize discomfort, distress, and pain to animals, consistent with sound research design;
  • procedures that may cause more than momentary discomfort or slight pain or distress must be performed with appropriate sedation, analgesia, or anesthesia;
  • animals that would otherwise experience severe or chronic pain or distress must be painlessly sacrificed using approved methods of euthanasia during or at the end of the experiment; and
  • the living conditions of laboratory animals must be professionally supervised,appropriate for the species, and contribute to the animals' health and comfort.

Just as with the use of human subjects, the use of animals can present difficult choices and ethical dilemmas. Some questions that scientists may face in animal research include the following:

  • Is it appropriate to use an animal model if an alternative, nonliving system would work, albeit less well?
  • If the use of an analgesic or anesthetic would alter body chemistry in a way to compromise the data obtained, should the need for accurate data outweigh the concern for alleviating pain and suffering?
  • If an animal can survive an experiment, what is one's obligation to sustain its life after the experiment is completed? Should the species of animal involved weigh into the decision (i.e., should one feel differently about preserving the life of a rat versus a chimpanzee?)
  • Is repeated experimentation on a single animal justified if it means sacrificing fewer animals overall?

Cases I1 and I2 are intended to address some of these questions. Students reading the cases should be guided by the selected readings, which point to philosophical issues as well as matters of practical concern, such as the extensive regulations and guidelines concerning the use of animals in research.

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