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Dog experiments at VA necessary for ‘only a few areas of research,’ panel says in sweeping report

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie, at a Capitol Hill hearing in 2019. Republicans and Democrats on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs told Wilkie in a letter that Congress needed updated information in order to oversee the VA’s efforts to confront the coronavirus pandemic.

STARS AND STRIPES

By KARIN BRULLIARD | The Washington Post | Published: July 1, 2020

A national advisory panel released a report Wednesday concluding that most recent Department of Veterans Affairs research involving dogs was unnecessary and that the agency should do more to justify limited use of canines and to improve the lives of those still used.

The report underscored longstanding concerns from lawmakers about the canine experimentation.

The report, written by an expert panel convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine — an independent agency that advises the government — found that dogs remain important models for four areas of cardiovascular and spinal cord research relevant to veterans’ health. But it urged the VA to work far harder at identifying alternatives to laboratory dogs, including trials involving pet dogs and methods and technologies that do not involve animals.

“Most protocols lacked a robust description of a serious attempt to exclude other species or explore alternatives to the laboratory dogs,” the report said of the agency’s pre-experiment review processes. “The committee is concerned that the current culture of justifying biomedical research in laboratory dogs favors the continued use of dogs.”

The department has ended several projects, and the agency’s inspector general has launched an investigation into the testing amid increasing criticism since 2017 from veterans groups, lawmakers and public figures over the VA’s laboratory experiments on dogs. Congress has approved stringent limits on animal research at the VA, most recently defunding tests on dogs, cats and monkeys that are not approved by the agency’s head and directly related to combat-associated illness or injury.

In a statement, the VA emphasized the report’s finding that some dog testing remained necessary. A recent canine study led to the development of a device that helps paralyzed people breathe without ventilators, cough independently and communicate better, it said.

“This study confirms what we’ve said all along: At this point, canine research is the only viable option for developing and testing certain treatments to improve the quality of life for some seriously disabled veterans,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said.

Humans have experimented on dogs for millennia, the report notes, in part because their trust in people and their willingness to obey commands makes them easier to work with than other large mammals. But their use in labs has dropped dramatically in the past five decades, including at the VA, where mice and rats now make up 99% of animals used in research. In 2018, the agency used 83 dogs in six studies, the report said.

Current VA studies involving dogs focus on cardiovascular disease, spinal cord injury and imaging, and recent research has included work on diabetes and narcolepsy. Wilkie has defended the use of dogs in studies — one of which involves implanting pacemakers into dogs and having them run on treadmills before euthanizing them — as crucial.

The committee of 15 experts — scientists, physicians, veterinarians, lawyers and experts in bioethics — concluded that the tests were narrowly necessary.

“On the minds of most people is, ‘Is there a need for VA to continue to use dogs in research?’ ” said the committee’s vice chair, Ron DeHaven, a former chief executive of the American Veterinary Medical Association and former senior administrator at the Department of Agriculture. “Ultimately, we concluded the answer to that is yes, but under very limited circumstances.”

Before testing on dogs, the panel said, the VA should determine that the research will deepen understanding of veterans’ health issues, that it cannot be done using other models and that the “harms experienced by the laboratory dogs are outweighed by the potential benefits for veterans.”

The White Coat Waste Project, a small animal rights organization that has generated bipartisan congressional opposition to the VA’s dog research by arguing that federal animal testing is a waste of taxpayer dollars, praised the report. Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, has championed the group’s efforts, as has actress and philanthropist Louise Linton, wife of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

The report “confirms what we’ve been saying for years and directly told the committee: The VA’s barbaric taxpayer-funded dog testing is wasteful, cruel, secretive, and in need of drastic reforms,” said Justin Goodman, the group’s vice president of advocacy and public policy. “It’s not perfect, but it’s progress.”

The $1.2 million report, commissioned by the VA in December 2018, makes clear that the topic was fraught even for the panel. One of its six recommendations was endorsed by 10 of 15 committee members, who split over whether to consider how not experimenting on dogs could affect other species that might be used as replacements. The minority believed the question was beyond the scope of their mission, committee members said.

That recommendation says that when multiple species can be used for an experiment, the VA should choose the design that relies on the fewest animals. If that species can’t be chosen — dogs or cats, for example, because of recent federal legislation — the VA “cannot ethically proceed and should consider forgoing the research,” the report said.

The panel urged the VA to create partnerships with other institutions and researchers who conduct clinical trials using pet dogs. Such “comparative” research has been expanding in recent years because dogs suffer from many of the same illnesses as humans, including many cancers, and because the results could benefit humans and dogs.

The VA also should try experiments not involving animals, the report said. Such an approach already is being pursued by the Environmental Protection Agency, which announced last year that it would reduce its animal testing dramatically and would spend $4.25 million to fund research into alternatives.

The committee’s report, 18 months in the making, involved monthly meetings, public hearings, data reviews, expert presentations and visits to two VA labs that use dogs. Conditions at those sites met or exceeded regulatory requirements, and the dogs there “enthusiastically approached” lab staff and caretakers, the report said.

But in its final recommendation, the panelists said the VA could do much more to improve the dogs’ welfare, including by voluntarily submitting to USDA animal welfare inspections.

At a lab in Richmond, Va., the dogs are released from individual pens to play together for 45 minutes five days per week; one reason they are housed alone is because they are implanted with heart sensors that protrude from the dogs’ thoraxes, “raising concerns that dog-dog interactions could damage the sensor or injure the dog,” the report said. At a St. Louis lab, dogs were released into a hallway to chase balls or to interact with people at least twice per week.

Dogs instead should be allowed outside cages for at least 30 minutes daily, visit outdoor space regularly if possible, have more enrichment activities and have adjoining enclosures to give dogs more space and opportunity to interact, the report said.

“This is one we felt really strongly about,” said committee member Chris Green, executive director of Harvard University’s animal law and policy program. “If it is absolutely vital that dogs are the only option to conduct an experiment that VA determines to be a valid, necessary biomedical experiment, then you make sure the dogs are treated as well as you possibly can.”

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