by Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
opposes the practice of releasing animals from shelters or pounds for
use in experimentation, sometimes referred to as pound seizure. PCRM is
a national nonprofit organization that addresses several issues in
medicine and research.
Most cities that are homes to leading research centers
no longer allow the release of pound animals to research laboratories.
Boston, the home of Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
and other universities; Baltimore, the home of Johns Hopkins University;
as well as New York City and Washington, D.C., are among the areas that
have chosen not to release animals for research.
The National Institutes of Health intramural researchers
never use animals from pounds. The National Institute of Mental Health
also makes no use of pound animals in its intramural research.
The economic factors are straightforward. Many have
shown that the use of pound animals is penny-wise and pound-foolish.
While these animals are inexpensive in initial purchase price, they
require quarantine and veterinary treatment to rid them of the
infections and parasites they have acquired on the streets. Quarantine
typically lasts for 30 days. The caging space, personnel costs, feeding,
and veterinary care are not free. Replacing the animals who die from
infections also escalates costs. So while the initial price may be low,
the savings are rapidly eroded. This may show up in budgets other than
those of the principal investigators, but such costs are nonetheless
real and have been well-known for decades.
A memo to personnel using dogs at the University of
California at San Francisco Animal Care Facility dated March 22, 1982
"[N]ormally 60-70 percent [of random-source] dogs
signs of infectious respiratory disease within the first
10-14 days. You
may expect a 10-15 percent mortality rate of assigned
this conditioning period."
A publication of the National Institutes of Health (NIH
publication 72-333) reports:
"In addition to altering experiment results, the use of
pound dogs may
also increase research costs, in spite of the initial
low cost of the dog
....The cost of the dogs is a minor part of the expense,
untimely death of each subject dog escalates the overall
The quality of research is another consideration.
Animals from shelters often carry diseases. It is entirely unknown what
diseases they may have had and what medications, if any, they may have
been given. Their ages are unknown. These factors are important in
research. Imagine testing a medicine for heart disease in dogs who,
unbeknownst to the researcher, had previously had heartworm or cardiac
damage from other infections. These factors can destroy experimental
results. There is no way researchers can know the histories of these
animals. Just as they would never consider using rats from the streets
in research, there is no reason to use dogs from this source.
These problems may cause experimental results to be
uninterpretable. As a result, more animals are then used in repeat
experiments. So rather than save money or animalsí lives, the use of
animals from this source often costs more money and more animalsí lives.
It is true that many animals in pounds who are not
adopted will be euthanized. But this is certainly not an argument in
favor of pound seizure. First, it is precisely those animals who are
most adoptable that experimenters tend to choose. They prefer docile,
well-socialized, medium-sized animals, precisely the animals likely to
be adopted. Second, there is no comparison between humane euthanasia in
a shelter and the experience of an animal in a laboratory experiment
before being killed. In 1987, Robert Eckstein studied the fate of
mongrel dogs in 52 experimental protocols taken randomly from the
published literature. The median length of experiments was about ten
days. Thirty-two percent of the experiments lasted longer than one
month. The longest in his study lasted five and one-half years.
Sixty-six percent of the experiments involved significant pain. Thirteen
percent involved severe pain on unanesthetized animals. One in ten dogs
died accidentally in the course of experiments. The conclusion is clear:
animals used in experiments suffer far more than those who are humanely
euthanized in the shelter.
Some institutions have used animals from pounds in
medical education, but this is an area where the use of animals is
falling out of favor. The September 1988 issue of Journal of Medical
Education reported our national survey of medical schools which showed
that there are now many schools which do not use animals at all in their
medical curriculum. The most common use of animals was in physiology
classes, but only 53 percent of medical schools use animals for this
purpose. Only 25 percent use animals to teach pharmacology, and only 19
percent use them in surgery. The trend is clearly for medical schools to
move away from the use of animals in education. The alternatives used at
U.S. medical schools are simple: lectures, readings, and the increased
use of clinical experience. Computer models, videotapes, and simulator
models are helpful as well.
There are often ethical questions regarding the source
of subjects for research. It is our judgment that pounds or shelters can
never be ethically used as a source of supply. This is because pound
seizure forces experimentation interests to conflict with animal control
Animal control is a difficult job in the best of times.
Animal control officers must rely on the good will of the public if
sick, injured, or abandoned animals are to be brought into shelters.
People bringing animals into a shelter expect that animals will either
be adopted or humanely euthanized. If a person bringing an injured or
sick animal into a shelter sees an animal dealer loading animals from
the back door of the shelter, the person will very likely turn around
and choose not to leave the animal at the facility. When people know
that pound seizure is routine, they tend to leave animals on the street.
There, animals are likely to breed more litters, carry parasites, or
contract diseases such as distemper or rabies, which, in turn, can
aggravate public health problems. Studies in New Mexico and Washington,
D.C., showed that pound release practices measurably erode public
confidence in animal control facilities. A tough job gets even tougher.
But it is not only the public that is discouraged by
pound seizure. Management and employees of shelters are adversely
affected, as well. In consultations with numerous jurisdictions, we have
never seen an effective animal control program in any city or county
which permitted pound seizure. Medical researchers should never try to
save a few dollars at the expense of an already overburdened animal
Inferior animal control, marked by a lack of public
confidence and the ever-present threat of rabies and other diseases
spread by uncontrolled animal populations, should not be tolerated by
progressive states. Banning pound release is the first step in a modern
animal control program.
Having seen many jurisdictions deliberate over this
issue, I am well aware that those who favor pound release do so because
they fear the encroachment of regulation on research. They should be
reminded that it has always been necessary to regulate research. The
instances of abuse of human and animal subjects are well-known in the
medical community. Just as unethical sources of human subjects are
shunned, one should turn away from conducting research at the expense of
other public institutions.
There is no doubt that researchers will give examples of
experiments that used pound animals. And they will assert that these
experiments would be impossible if the cost of animals were to be
increased. It has to be remembered that animal costs are always small in
comparison with staff salaries, facilities costs, computers, and medical
Go on to What Do
Landfills and Dead Fish Have In Common?
Return to 27 June 2001 Issue
Return to Newsletters
** Fair Use Notice**
This document may contain copyrighted material, use of which has not been
specifically authorized by the copyright owners. I believe that this
not-for-profit, educational use on the Web constitutes a fair use of the
copyrighted material (as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright
Law). If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your
own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright