The Food and Drug Administration will now put healthy research animals up for adoption after their time in the lab is complete. The new rule affects dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs and some farm animal species, reports The Hill’s Rachel Bucchino.
The F.D.A. uses animal testing to understand the effects of medical products, like drugs, vaccines and medical devices, before research can move to clinical trials involving humans. Per the F.D.A., animal research is necessary to understand attributes like how quickly a medication is absorbed by the body and how quickly its effects wear off. Animal testing also gives insight into any toxic byproducts that show up as the drug is broken down and how long those byproducts remain in the body. Medical devices that are made from new materials need to be tested in animals for the same reasons.
In the past, research animals were generally euthanized at the end of research, even if they were healthy. But in November, the F.D.A. updated their policies to encourage lab animal retirement—adoption into “furever” homes. The change wasn’t publicly disclosed by the F.D.A. until now.
“The FDA has an internal policy for the placement of research animals after study completion that has not been made public,” Monique Richards, an F.D.A. spokeswoman, told The Hill.
The new policy follows suit with the National Institutes of Health, which enacted a similar policy in August of last year, and the Department of Veteran Affairs, which put a policy in place encouraging adoption of research dogs in 2018. Several states have laws encouraging labs to find adopters for common domestic animals used in their research, but no nationwide requirement currently exists.
In 2019, an animal advocacy group called the White Coat Waste Project brought scrutiny against a USDA research program studying toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasmosis eggs are spread through cat feces, so the researchers fed kittens tainted dog and cat meat to infect them with the parasite, which relies on cats as part of its life cycle. Between 2013 and 2018, 239 cats were killed in the study, per NPR’s Vanessa Romo, and after WCW’s report the USDA shut down all cat experiments and adopted out 14 healthy cats.
In 2019, U.S. Senator Susan Collins of Maine introduced the Animal Freedom from Testing, Experiments and Research (AFTER) Act, which would put a nationwide policy in place regarding animal adoptions after a life in the lab.
“There is no reason why regulated research animals that are suitable for adoption or retirement should be killed by our federal agencies,” Collins said in a statement to The Hill. “I’m pleased that the FDA has joined the NIH and VA in enacting a lab animal retirement policy.”
Julie Germany, executive director of the White Coat Waste Project, adopted a dog named Violet from a government-funded lab. At first, Violet was extremely anxious, having grown up in a lab and never seen the outdoors, Germany tells The Dodo’s Arin Greenwood. Violet hadn’t been house trained and needed a diaper, and was taught by the family cat, Bert, how to climb the stairs. But by 2017, Violet became well-adjusted to life in a loving home.
“The FDA should be a role model for other federal agencies that are experimenting on animals, but have not yet agreed to allow them to be released at the end of testing,” Justin Goodman, vice president of the White Coat Waste Project, tells The Hill.
The United States 2020 budgetary spending bill also contains goals to reduce the use of dogs and cats in federally funded medical research. Some researchers have expressed concern over the new legislation, which represents the first time Congress has set "hard deadlines for the elimination and reduction of experiments on dogs, cats and primates," Goodman told Science magazine’s David Grimm in 2019.
“There is some language that could set a dangerous precedent for deciding how research in the U.S. should be conducted in the future,” explains Matthew Bailey, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, in a 2019 interview with Science. “Today, it is animals in biomedical research; tomorrow, it may be climate science, tobacco research, stem cell research, occupational health research, or even epidemiology.
He adds, “Eventually that research will be more likely to move to other countries, which isn’t good for American competitiveness, animal welfare, or the public’s health.”