Philosophy of AR > Animal Testing Index > Anti-vivisection Index

Frequently Asked Questions: Vivisection

What is wrong with experimenting on animals? No lab rat (or dog or monkey…) ever signed a consent form. In and of itself, this constitutes an ethical problem with the practice of experimenting on non-human animals for the hypothetical benefit of humans.

What animals are used and why? A complete count of animals used in research is unknown because federal laws do not require research institutions to record the number of rats, mice and cold blooded animals that are used in experimentation. Estimates for total numbers are between 20-70 million. Of the animals who are counted, here is what we know: The number of warm-blooded vertebrate animals used in science each year in the United States is approximately 28 million. Of that total, about 18 million animals are killed for research, compared with 2.51 million in England, 1.66 million in Canada, and 0.73 million in the Netherlands.

Doesn't the law protect animals used in research? The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is the primary law covering laboratory animals in the United States. The AWA was passed in 1966 and amended in 1970, 1976 and 1985. The scope of the AWA is limited, in that, it does not restrict what can be done to an animal during a study - it only applies to the type of care an animal receives before and after experimentation. The following provision grants animal researchers impunity to do as they wish in the course of an experiment: "Nothing in these rules, regulations, or standards shall affect or interfere with the design, outline, or performance of actual research or experimentation by a research facility as determined by such research facility."

The AWA only requires that research facilities count the number of dogs, cats, primates, guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits, (some) farm animals, and other animals that are used in experiments. Rats, mice, birds, and cold-blooded animals are not protected by the AWA and represent approximately 85 percent of the total number of animals used in experimentation.

What about all the breakthroughs we've gained through animal research? The historical value of animal research with regard to human health remains in question.

Researchers from Harvard and Boston Universities concluded that medical measures (drugs and vaccines) accounted for between 1 and 3.5% of the total decline in mortality rates since 1900. Scores of animals were killed in the quest to find cures for tuberculosis, scarlet fever, smallpox and diphtheria, among others, but was their unwilling contribution important to the decline of these diseases? Dr. Edward Kass of Harvard Medical School, asserts that the "primary credit for the virtual eradication of these diseases must go to improvements in public health, sanitation and the general improvement in the standard of living." These benefits have nothing to do with animal studies.

Animal research appropriates money, time, personnel, facilities and other resources that would save more lives if those same resources were placed into, let's say, education or prevention. In the end, it becomes a question of priorities - do we want to focus on supporting what we know works or do we place our faith in serendipity? Over 44 million Americans have either no or inadequate health care coverage, if we really want to "improve human health" we need to provide adequate access to care, not fund more animals experiments, which offer no promise of success (in fact their track record is abysmal) and divert funds, support and attention from more productive areas.

What about drug testing? The Journal of the American Medical Association reported in April 1998 that adverse reactions to prescription drugs (all of which must first pass a battery of animal tests) kill more than 100,000 humans each year. Animal tests failed to predict these dangers. This is not surprising since non-human animals are unable to relate the most common side effects that occur with prescription medicines such as headaches, dizziness, malaise, depression or nausea. These symptoms are often the initial warning signs of more severe problems.

Those who are opposed to animal experiments should not accept drugs that have been produced after animal testing was done. It is impossible to take drugs that haven't been tested on animals because currently the Food and Drug Administration requires animal tests for pharmaceuticals. Hence, virtually all drugs have been, at some time, tested on animals. But just because drugs have been tested on animals doesn't make animal tests any more relevant, useful or valid to humans (see above).

If animal experimentation is of such questionable value, why does it persist? There are several likely explanations:

Vivisection is easily published. In the "publish or perish" world of academic science, it requires little originality or insight to take an already well-defined animal model, change a variable (or the species being used), and obtain "new" and "interesting" findings within a short period of time. In contrast, clinical research (while much more useful) is often more difficult and time-consuming. Also, the many species available and the nearly infinite possible manipulations offer researchers the opportunity to "prove" almost any theory that serves their economic, professional, or political needs. For example, researchers have "proven" in animals that cigarettes both do and do not cause cancer - depending on the funding source.

Vivisection is self-perpetuating. Scientists' salaries and professional status are often tied to grants, and a critical element of success in grant applications is proof of prior experience and expertise. Researchers trained in animal research techniques find it difficult or inconvenient to adopt new methods, such as tissue cultures.

Vivisection appears more "scientific" than clinical research. Researchers often assert that laboratory experiments are "controlled," because they can change one variable at a time. The control, however, is illusory. Any animal model differs in myriad ways from human physiology and pathology. In addition, the laboratory setting itself creates confounding variables - for example, stress and undesired or unrecognized pathology in the animals. Such variables can have system-wide effects, skew experimental results, and undermine extrapolation of findings to humans.

Vivisection is lucrative. Its traditionally respected place in modern medicine results in secure financial support, which is often an integral component of a university's budget. Many medical centers receive tens of millions of dollars annually in direct grants for animal research, and tens of millions more for overhead costs that are supposedly related to that research. Since these medical centers depend on this overhead for much of their administrative costs, construction, and building maintenance, they perpetuate vivisection by praising it in the media and to legislators.

Vivisection's morality is rarely questioned by researchers, who generally choose to dogmatically defend the practice rather than confront the obvious moral issues it raises. Animal researchers' language betrays their efforts to avoid morality. For example, they "sacrifice" animals rather than kill them, and they may note animal "distress," but they rarely acknowledge pain or other suffering. Young scientists quickly learn to adopt such a mindset from their superiors, as sociologist Arnold Arluke explains:

One message - almost a warning - that newcomers got was that it was controversial or risky to admit to having ethical concerns, because to do so was tantamount to admitting that there really was something morally wrong with animal experimentation, thereby giving "ammunition to the enemy."

Animal researchers' ethical defense of the practice has been superficial and self-serving. Usually, they simply point to supposed human benefits and argue that the ends justify the means. Often, they add that nonhuman animals are "inferior," lacking certain attributes compared to humans, such as intelligence, family structure, social bonding, communication skills, and altruism. However, numerous nonhuman animals - among them rats, pigs, dogs, monkeys, and great apes - reason and/or display altruism. There is accumulating evidence that many animals experience the same range of emotions as humans. Chimpanzees and gorillas can be taught human sign language, and sign with one another even without humans present.

The general public, which cares about animal welfare, has been led to believe that animals rarely suffer in laboratories. Animal researchers often cite U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics (derived from researchers themselves) that only 6 to 8 percent of animals used in vivisection experience pain unrelieved by anesthesia or analgesia.

Evidence indicates, however, that many animal researchers fail to acknowledge - or even perceive - animal pain and suffering. For example, sociologist Mary Phillips observed animal researchers kill rats in acute toxicity tests, induce cancer in rodents, subject animals to major surgery with no post-operative analgesia, and perform numerous other painful procedures without administering anesthesia or analgesia to the animals. Nevertheless, in their annual reports to the USDA, none of the researchers acknowledged that any animals had experienced unrelieved pain or distress. Phillips reported, "Over and over, researchers assured me that in their laboratories, animals were never hurt...'Pain' meant the acute pain of surgery on conscious animals, and almost nothing else...[When I asked] about psychological or emotional suffering, many researchers were at a loss to answer."

Specifics which might come up:

Diabetes: Human studies by Cawley, Bright and Bouchardat in the 18th and 19th centuries first revealed the importance of pancreatic damage in diabetes. This predates the dog studies by Banting and Best by over a century. Human studies by Paul Langerhans in 1869 led to the discovery of insulin-producing islet cells. Although cows and pigs were once the primary sources for insulin to treat people with diabetes we are not bound to the methods of the past. Human insulin can now be duplicated in vitro and is the product of choice for insulin dependant people with diabetes.

Polio: Studies on monkeys led to gross misconceptions that delayed the fight against poliomyelitis, according to a statement made to Congress by Dr. Albert Sabin, the inventor of the oral polio vaccine. The erroneous conclusion that the polio virus infects through the monkey nervous system contradicted previous human studies which demonstrated that the gastrointestinal system was the primary route of infection. This resulted in misdirected preventive measures and delayed the development of a vaccine.

What kinds of alternatives are there? An animal alternative falls into one of three categories: replacement of an animal method; reduction in the number of animals used; or refinement of the experimental design and methods to reduce pain and distress to animals. It is important to understand that a procedure that uses animals can still be considered an alternative by the scientific community.

Animals Used in Product Testing

Eye Irritancy Tests: In these tests, a liquid, flake, granule, or powdered substance is dropped into the eyes of animals, usually rabbits. The animals are often immobilized in stocks from which only their heads protrude. They usually receive no anesthesia during the tests.

After placing the substance in the rabbits' eyes, laboratory technicians record the damage to the eye tissue at specific intervals over an average period of 72 hours, with tests sometimes lasting 7 to 18 days. Reactions to the substances include swollen eyelids, inflamed irises, ulceration, bleeding, massive deterioration, and blindness. During the tests, the rabbits' eyelids are held open with clips. Many animals have broken their necks or backs while struggling to escape.

The results of eye irritancy tests are questionable, as they vary from laboratory to laboratory and even from rabbit to rabbit, as well as between species.

Acute Toxicity Tests: Acute toxicity tests, commonly called lethal dose or poisoning tests, determine the amount of a substance that will kill a percentage, even up to 100 percent, of a group of test animals. In these tests, a substance is forced by tube into the animals' stomachs or through holes cut into their throats. It may also be injected under the skin, into a vein, or into the lining of the abdomen; mixed into lab chow; inhaled through a gas mask; or introduced into the eyes, rectum, or vagina. Experimenters observe the animals' reactions, which can include convulsions, labored breathing, diarrhea, constipation, emaciation, skin eruptions, abnormal posture, and bleeding from the eyes, nose, or mouth.

The widely used lethal dose 50 (LD50) test was developed in 1927. The LD50 testing period continues until at least 50 percent of the animals die, usually in two to four weeks.

Like eye irritancy tests, lethal dose tests are unreliable at best. Says Microbiological Associates' Rodger D. Curren, researchers looking for non-animal alternatives must prove that these in vitro models perform "at least as well as animal tests. But as we conduct these validation exercises, it's become more apparent that the animal tests themselves are highly variable." The European Center for the Validation of Alternative Methods' Dr. Michael Ball puts it more bluntly: "The scientific basis" for animal safety tests is "weak."

Is product testing on animals required by law? No. Unlike drugs, there is no law which requires animal testing for cosmetics and household products. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires only that each ingredient in a cosmetics product be "adequately substantiated for safety" prior to marketing or that the product carry a warning label indicating that its safety has not been determined. The FDA does not have the authority to require any particular product test. Likewise, household products, which are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) the agency that administers the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA) do not have to be tested on animals. A summary of the CPSC's animal-testing policy states, "[I]t is important to keep in mind that neither the FHSA nor the Commission's regulations require any firm to perform animal tests. The statute and its implementing regulations only require that a product be labeled to reflect the hazards associated with that product."

Testing methods are determined by manufacturers. The very unreliability of animal tests may make them appealing to some companies, since these tests allow manufacturers to control the variables and put virtually any product on the market. Companies can also use the fact that their products were tested on animals in attempts to defend themselves against consumer lawsuits.

Alternatives to Animal Tests

More than 500 manufacturers of cosmetics and household products that have shunned animal tests. These companies take advantage of the many technologies that are better than antiquated animal tests, including cell cultures, tissue cultures, corneas from eye banks, and sophisticated computer and mathematical models. Companies can also formulate products using ingredients already determined to be safe by the FDA. Most cruelty-free companies use a combination of methods to ensure safety, such as maintaining extensive databases of ingredient and formula information and employing in vitro (test tube) tests and human clinical studies.

Useful Product Testing Anecdote :

For seven years, Tom's of Maine petitioned the American Dental Association (ADA) to grant its seal of approval to Tom's of Maine toothpastes. Other toothpaste companies unquestioningly conducted lethal tests on rats in order to be eligible for the ADA seal (one example: researchers brush rats' teeth for more than a month, then kill the animals and examine their teeth under a microscope). Tom's of Maine worked with researchers to develop fluoride tests that could safely be conducted on human volunteers. The ADA accepted the results of these tests and granted its seal to several of the company's toothpastes in 1995. The groundbreaking effort by Tom's of Maine to find a humane alternative to cruel but accepted testing practices sets a precedent that other manufacturers can follow.

Public Opinion:

The Press reported in December 1995 that "...two-thirds of 1,004 Americans polled agree with a basic tenet of the animal rights movement: An animal's right to live free of suffering should be just as important as a person's right to live free of suffering."

A survey by the American Medical Association found that 75 percent of Americans are against using animals to test cosmetics.

Furthermore, a national, telephone survey conducted in 2003 of 1,505 non-elderly adults ages 18-64 with permanent physical and/or mental disabilities found that when asked to choose the most important disability-related priority for the government to address, 41% said improving prescription drug coverage; 26% said helping people work and keep their disability benefits; 14% said making it easier for people to apply for benefits; 11% said helping with the cost of home care, personal assistance and equipment; and 5% said improving transportation services. No mention of more animal experimentation was given.

Animals Used in Education


Dissection is the practice of cutting up animals in classroom exercises. It is a common exercise in biology, anatomy, and physiology classes. Three to six million frogs and thousands of mice, rats, rabbits, pigs, cats, dogs, and other animals are dissected annually.

Where do animals for dissection come from? Frogs and other small animals area often bred by animal supply houses. Frogs are also captured in the wild, which causes serious environmental problems. In Bangladesh, the mass exportation of frogs for food and experiments has resulted in an overpopulation of crop-damaging insects that the frogs once controlled. Cats and dogs can be taken from pounds and shelters, or rounded up or trapped by dealers and bunchers (see pet theft section).

Do animals used for dissection suffer? Animals bred or captured for dissection can suffer from the trauma of confinement, inadequate food and care, crude transport, and inhumane killing methods. Live frogs are not always accurately "pithed" (their spinal cords severed), so they are sometimes cut open while still conscious.

Is dissection a necessary or educational exercise? Dissection is not only unnecessary, it runs the risk of desensitizing students to the suffering of others and teaches them that animals can be used and discarded without respect for their lives. In Great Britain, dissection is being phased out of school curricula, and the right of students not to dissect is being established and upheld in the United States as well (including California). By using only humane teaching methods, instructors can teach science and ethics simultaneously.

What are the alternatives to dissection? Exciting computer programs (where a student can not only take an animal apart, but also put them back together further enforcing the learning process), realistic or larger-than-life models, films, and diagrams are all effective ways to teach anatomy and physiology without harming animals. "Visifrog," a wonderful computer simulation of a frog dissection, teaches the structure and function of various organs. Students who object to dissection may call IDA at 415-388-9641 for advice or information.

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