The Richmond Department of Veterans Affairs is scaling down its research on laboratory dogs 

By: - June 27, 2022 12:02 am

Hunter Holmes McGuire V.A. Hospital in Richmond. (NBC12)

The Department of Veterans Affairs is about halfway through its congressionally mandated five-year plan to eliminate or reduce the use of canines, felines and non-human primates in biomedical research. 

Two approved experiments, or protocols, on canines were still active in March at the Hunter Holmes McGuire Medical Center in Richmond, according to Freedom of Information Act requests filed by the White Coat Waste Project, a watchdog group working to end what they consider wasteful and cruel taxpayer-funded animal experiments. 

The two protocols were scheduled to expire in April and July of this year, but as of March, there were no dogs actually being held at the Richmond VA. 

“It indicated to us that the last two protocols we were curious about may have ended,” said Justin Goodman, the White Coat Waste Project’s vice president of advocacy and public policy. “The Richmond VA is the last VA facility still experimenting on dogs.”

The reduction of active protocols utilizing dogs at the Richmond VA is “a great reflection that the VA is taking seriously its commitment to this five-year plan,” said Chris Green, executive director of the  Brooks McCormick Jr. Animal Law and Policy Program at Harvard Law School. 

“Veterans Affairs is committed to the reduction of research with canines, felines or non-human primates,” said Ubon Mendie, director of communications at the VA Office of Research and Development in an emailed statement. “We take this commitment seriously and continue to take all steps to do so without sacrificing the innovative strides in medical care improvements that our veterans deserve.”  

The five-year plan was first required as part of the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020. “Appropriation bills can seem kind of dry and boring, but in an era when you’ve got pretty gridlocked legislatures, especially the U.S. Congress, they are actually a really good way to get governance done,” said Green, who served on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine committee hired by the VA to assess whether dogs are necessary for biomedical research.  

The NASEM committee found that laboratory dogs are scientifically necessary for some areas of VA research, including cardiovascular disease and spinal cord injury, but they are no longer the preferred model for other areas of research like diabetes and primary pharmacology. 

“If the public doesn’t want you doing unnecessary research on those animals, they just aren’t going to give you the funding to keep doing it,” said Green. “The public does ultimately hold the purse strings.”

The VA published data in the five-year plan showing a reduction in the use of certain animals since 2009, attributing the reduction “primarily due to the gradual development of new models using rodents or agricultural animals that could replace sensitive species in studies

Since cats and dogs are the animals the American public interacts with the most, they, along with non-human primates – our closest relatives in the animal kingdom — are in the spotlight when it comes to animal experiments, said Green.

 “Some people complain why should cats and dogs get special treatment,” Green said. “I don’t necessarily think that they’re getting special treatment at the expense of other animals. I think American society, through its government, is slowly kind of expanding the circle of species that it feels should not be subjected to such treatment.”

“Who knows? In five years we could be having another National Academies meeting analyzing their use of pigs in biomedical research,” Green said. “Pigs are just as intelligent as dogs, if not more so, and they certainly have the capacity to feel as much pain and suffer in the same ways.”

The total number of felines, canines and non-human primates used in VA research has reduced significantly in the past decade due in part to increased exposure from watchdog groups who have made the public aware of the practice. 

The VA published data in the five-year plan showing a reduction in the use of certain animals since 2009, attributing the reduction “primarily due to the gradual development of new models using rodents or agricultural animals that could replace sensitive species in studies

“It’s institutional inertia that keeps this going, and thankfully there are members of Congress on both sides of the aisle who are cracking down on this waste and abuse and don’t want taxpayers’ money wasted on cruel animal experiments that are not providing a return on investment for hard working Americans,” said Goodman. 

The VA is required to actively promote new methodologies that do not utilize sensitive species by funding research on human tissues and organs, in vitro techniques such as organ-on-a-chip and computational approaches. 

“There is certainly an ‘always done it like this’ symptom,’ especially when it’s about safety testing,” said Thomas Hartung, director of Johns Hopkins University Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing.  “It’s very difficult to make a change here.”

“Researchers have gotten used to animal experiments being the ultimate proof, but there is a reason 95% of clinical trials in humans fail,” said Hartung.  “We are not connected perfectly to the biology of animals. This is the reason why there is so much hope for the human relevant organ and chip systems and combined organs.”

Hartung said science needs to be more self-critical. “We are not encouraged to talk about the shortcomings of the models we are using, which means all scientific literature is inflated and praising scientific models that could have big shortcomings.”

The VA is successfully implementing new ways to conduct research that do not require the use of canines, said Mendie. “This will remain the standard, as we continue to pursue our goal for reducing overall canine research in accordance with law.”

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Evan Visconti
Evan Visconti

Evan is a freelance journalist and photographer, covering environmental news. Originally from Tully, New York, he graduated from Loyola University Maryland in 2019 and then earned his master's degree in journalism from Emerson College in 2020. He has reported on stories including offshore wind energy, dairy farming, and tribal land conservation. Contact him at [email protected].