Animal testing is not all bad. But much of it is not necessary, either.

Here’s what you need to know.

Animal testing is unfortunate, but justified for the good it does to savehuman lives. Most people you talk to would agree with that statement. But how necessary is animal testing to medical research?

Much of what comes under the heading of live animal testing is benign. Many, if not most ‘experimentation’ involving live animals are habitat studies and population counts of animals in the wild, often as part of environmental impact assessments. These studies often entail crawling around in scrub or wetlands looking for samples of faeces and fur caught on branches and things. Sometimes they entail trapping animals in cages to be identified and tagged then released where they were caught. Generally, the animals are unaware that they are being studied or suffer at most mild and brief distress. But much animal testing in laboratories is horribly inhumane. Worse, much of it is pointless – and can even harm humans.

Consider, for example, that the twentieth century’s two wonder drugs, aspirin and penicillin, are either lethal or very toxic to animals routinely used to test medications, in these cases, cats and guinea pigs respectively. Had those drugs been tested on animals, we would not have them, which beg the question of what other drugs were blocked, and how much human suffering resulted.

We try not to think about how many or how much laboratory animals suffer during testing and while held in cages between testing, but we assume it is all unavoidable. Yet a lot of testing serves only to further individual scientists’ career interests by bulking up the number of articles they have published. Much, if not most of that is redundant.

Still, much testing isn’t, and new drugs need to be tested for safety and efficacy before they can be used on people. So, what is acceptable and what is unacceptable use of live animals and what alternatives are there? Many compounds aim to work only on specific parts of our bodies, such as muscles or liver. These days scientists have become very good at producing the relevant human tissue in a laboratory. They are not connected to any central nervous system, no suffering, animal or otherwise, results. These methods have proved inexpensive and very effective, leading to more affordable treatments for people.

But bodies are highly connected environments, and some treatments need to be tested on whole systems, for example, to see what effect a liver drug might have on kidney function.

The snag is that, while rats’ systems are quite similar to human, they are not the same, what works on a rat or a mouse or a guinea pig may not work on a human, and vice versa. That’s why second and third stage drug trials, where drugs are tested on humans, are still necessary.

Humans have a choice about whether they want to serve as guinea pigs, but guinea pigs don’t. Could the animals be replaced with something both less inhumane and more effective? In some cases, almost certainly they could. Advances in genetic and DNA analysis and computer modelling have come as far as being able to predict the effects of treatments on individual patients. This is not only kinder, but cheaper and, crucially, more effective, allowing the best treatments to benefit humans that much sooner.

What about animal testing for things like cosmetics, household products and industrial chemicals? Here the arguments are much more straightforward. To begin with, they are unlikely to save any human lives. Second, most ‘new’ products consist of well known substances with new packaging. So, it would surprise and dismay many of us to think how much pure agony and distress is caused in the name of profits, not safety, and how utterly pointless are some ‘experiments’.

Take two of the most common procedures used in product testing, the Draize test and the LD50 test. The Draize test entails dripping the substance in question into the naked eyes of live rabbits to see at what point they go blind. Why rabbits? Because they don’t produce tears to clean their eyes, which would confound the test results – although you may ask what relevance rabbit eyes have for humans, given that they don’t produce tears, whereas we do. The LD50 entails applying the substance to animals, such as mice, rats and guinea pigs, but sometimes dogs and cats from animal shelters, in increasing doses until half of the animals in the test die.

It is not clear how the dose that kills a mouse, or which causes a rabbit to go blind can be relevant to a human. Fortunately, many regulators have, responding to years of pressure from animal protection groups, abolished or severely limited these practices, but much pointless testing still goes on.

So, the next time you’re asked what you think of animal testing, you need to ask what type of testing and what for. There are good arguments both for and against animal testing – it just depends on what kind you’re talking about.

Featured image by Tiburi on Pixabay.

Sasha Diable
European and I guess that's about it for now.

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