A scientific advisory panel has found that the use of dogs for medical research at the Department of Veterans Affairs is necessary in only a few areas of biomedical study, and is recommending that VA do more to improve the lives of animals under its care.
In a study on the necessity, use and care of dogs in VA research, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said Wednesday that using dogs for research for cardiovascular and spinal cord conditions remains "scientifically necessary." But dogs are no longer the "preferred model for studies" for other conditions that the VA studies, including narcolepsy, imaging studies and pharmacological research.
The department should work harder to find alternatives, the panel of 15 scientists, veterinarians and doctors said, and they admonished VA researchers for justifying their use of dogs by citing previous use.
"Principal investigators frequently cited previous experience with and historical data in dog models as primary justifications for using laboratory dogs. These justifications are insufficient alone and constitute a form of circular reasoning that perpetuations the use of laboratory dogs without adequate examination," they wrote.
"The committee is concerned that the current culture of justifying biomedical research in laboratory dogs favors the continued use of dogs," they added.
The use of dogs at VA for medical research came under scrutiny in 2017 following internal investigations at VA as well as inquiries from Congress and animal rights advocates into the department's treatment of animals under its care. Congress further restricted animal testing in a fiscal 2020 federal funding bill, pulling money from any research that uses primates, cats and dogs unless it's explicitly approved by the VA secretary.
The law stipulates that research can take place only if other animals won't work, and the research is directly related to combat-related illnesses and injuries.
For years, VA officials have maintained that using dogs for research is essential.
"VA will continue conducting canine research, as it is absolutely necessary to better treat life-threatening health conditions in our veterans," a VA official told Military.com last year.
More than 30 studies using dogs have contributed to lifesaving treatments for veterans, including the development of devices that help veterans with spinal cord injuries breath and cough.
Following the release of the National Academies report Wednesday, Wilkie cited that study and gave other examples of animal research-aided health breakthroughs -- the development of the pacemaker, liver transplantation, the ablation procedure for arrhythmia and hip replacement improvements -- in reaffirming VA's commitment to animal research.
"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 of some seriously disabled veterans," Wilkie said.
Panel members said VA should adopt a set of criteria to determine when using dogs for research is necessary. They added that VA should work to improve its biomedical research protocols and explore alternatives such as using rodents or pigs and harnessing new technologies. They suggested as well that pet dogs could be used for research on naturally occurring canine diseases that have a human equivalent, benefitting both species.
"The VA should prioritize the development and continuation of external multidisciplinary collaborations to develop, validate, and apply alternatives to the laboratory dog in biomedical research," the group wrote.
Members also recommended that VA take better care of the animals in their custody, providing them with opportunities to socialize with other dogs and humans, access to areas outside their primary enclosures and time outdoors.
"This would provide additional opportunity for exercise as well as olfactory, sensory and visual stimulation," they wrote.
Last year, Reps. Brian Mast, R-Florida, and Dina Titus, D-Nevada, wrote a scathing op-ed in USA Today calling for an end to the VA's use of dogs for testing.
According to the lawmakers, at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia, heart attacks were induced in puppies by injecting latex into their arteries and then placing them on treadmills to stress them out until they died. Dobermans were injected with methamphetamines and beagles were subjected to invasive procedures.
"These and other cruel practices must end," they wrote.
VA officials said the department has reduced its use of canines "to the absolute minimum required at this time to fulfill its commitment to finding treatments for veterans with life-threatening health conditions." But they added that the VA has "supported this type of research for decades and continues to do so because it is absolutely necessary to better treat life-threatening health conditions in our veterans."
Animal rights activists praised the conclusions of the National Academies report Wednesday, saying it confirmed what they have been saying for years -- that VA's use of dogs for medical testing is cruel and wasteful.
Justin Goodman, vice president of advocacy and public policy for the White Coat Waste Project, an animal rights group that focuses on animals in medical testing and has pushed for legislation to limit their use, said veterans and taxpayers should not pay for testing that uses dogs and is outside the VA's mission to study veteran specific ailments.
"With this report's recommendation to further restrict VA dog experimentation and bipartisan legislation enacted last year directing the VA to phase-out dog, cat and primate testing by 2025, this shameful taxpayer-funded program will soon be relegated to the trash heap of history," Goodman said.
Shalin Gala, vice president of international laboratory methods with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said VA's use of dogs in testing "does nothing to address military veterans' real health needs."
"The VA should address veterans' needs by using the most advanced technology available, such as synthetically engineered human cardiac tissue and advanced computer models, not shamelessly wasting taxpayer dollars on abusing and killing dogs and other animals in misguided, flawed, and deadly experiments that don't apply to humans because of significant physiological differences between species," Gala said.
She added that VA should examine PETA publications on research modernization that excludes harm to animals.