Legislators Move to Stop VA from Using Dogs for Most Medical Research

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie testifies during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
FILE -- Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie testifies during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, on Capitol Hill, Sept. 26, 2018 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

House appropriators have advanced a Department of Veterans Affairs funding bill that would largely prohibit the department from using dogs for medical research, even for experiments the VA has said are vital to improve veterans' treatment options.

The proposed legislation, which will be considered by the entire House next week, would bar the VA from using dogs in any experiments that would cause them pain beyond minor, momentary discomfort, such as an injection.

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The measure comes as the department has doubled down on its defense of using dogs for certain experiments, including research on cardiovascular disease and spinal cord injuries.

Following the release of a federal advisory panel report last week recommending that the department use dogs for research only on an extremely limited basis, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said canine research is "the only viable option for developing and testing certain treatments" for seriously disabled veterans.

"This study confirms what we've said all along," Wilkie said.

The report, published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, said using dogs for research on cardiovascular and spinal cord conditions remains "scientifically necessary," but they are no longer the "preferred model for studies" for other conditions that the VA studies, including narcolepsy, imaging studies and pharmacological research.

For several lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including Rep. Brian Mast, a Florida Republican and former Army explosive ordnance disposal technician who lost both legs to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, the recommendations by the Academies were not enough.

"These painful experiments on dogs are cruel and an unnecessary waste of taxpayer dollars. We've worked hard to put a stop to them, and this is another great milestone in our fight. It's 2020, and there should be no more dog testing by the federal government, period," Mast said in a release.

Last year, the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia, renewed an experiment on canines that surgically implants pacemakers in the animals and then stresses them on treadmills before they are euthanized.

Those experiments initially were conducted without any pain relief, and the hospital now says it won't conduct the tests without anesthesia.

Other experiments subjected dobermans to injections of methamphetamines.

"I've long said that painful dog testing at the Department of Veterans Affairs is cruel and unnecessary. There are several high-quality, innovative alternatives available to conduct this research. I'm proud that the Appropriations Committee passed the proposal," said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nevada, who co-sponsored the legislation with Mast.

The VA Office of Inspector General released a report Tuesday saying that, in fiscal 2017 and fiscal 2018, eight experiments were done using dogs that had not been approved by the VA secretary, as required by law.

Among its recommendations, the VA OIG said the department should establish a formal process for obtaining approval from the VA secretary for studies using canine subjects to comply with the law and ensure that it is spending money appropriately.

Should the provision barring painful experiments become law, however, the OIG's recommendations would be moot. Once the bill passes the House, it will have to be reconciled with the Senate's version before being forwarded to President Donald Trump for a signature.

The proposed legislation contains several other provisions that pertain to man's best friend: It would require the VA to release the long-awaited results of a study to assess the effectiveness of service dogs for treating post-traumatic stress disorder and asks for a report on the options and estimated costs of providing service dogs for veterans.

Advocates who have lobbied the VA to stop using canines for research praised the committee's move last week.

"Congress has just made clear that taxpayers should not be forced to foot the bill for heart attack tests on puppies and other wasteful, cruel and secretive VA dog tests that are opposed by veterans, scientists and a majority of other Americans," said Justin Goodman, vice president of advocacy and public policy for the White Coat Waste Project.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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