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Do We Really Need To Test On Animals?

Updated: Apr 7

Animal testing has been carried out for hundreds of years. Some of the greatest breakthroughs in science have involved animal testing. From checking the safety of medicines, to experiments in behavioural science, animals have been used to check and test many different things. The problem is, do we really need to subject the animals to this? Do the animals have any say in what happens and what about when the animals really don't like what is happening, when the animals suffer?

a gloved hand holding a mouse
Most results from animal testing aren't even used

The History of Animal Testing

Research and testing on animals has been taking place since at least 500 BC and today it is estimated that 26 million animals are used every year in the United States alone for scientific and commercial testing. They are used to develop medical treatments, determine the toxicity of medications, check the safety of products destined for human use, as well as other other biomedical, commercial, and health care uses.

Since the first experiments, animals have been used through the history of biomedical research. In 1831, the founders of the Dublin Zoo were interested in studying animals while they were alive as well as when they were dead. In the 1880s, Louis Pasteur established germ theory by giving anthrax to sheep. Insulin was first isolated from dogs in 1922, and changed the treatment of diabetes forever. On 3 November 1957, a Soviet dog, Laika, became the first of many animals to go to space and orbit the earth. Then in 1974 humans started experimenting with the genetics of animals, it was Rudolf Jaenisch who produced the first transgenic mammal by integrating DNA from a virus into the genome of mice. This genetic research progressed rapidly and, in 1996, Dolly the sheep was born, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. Dolly lived her life as an experiment and died of lung cancer at the age of six and a half. The lung cancer was not a result of being a clone, but was most likely caused from living indoors, which is unnatural and unhealthy for sheep.

The first complaints of animal testing being cruel were made in 1655. When animal experiments started to become common place most people were against the use of animals, however, this was not because they cared for the animals, but because they felt that animals were so inferior to humans that testing on them would be of no use. The idea of these experiments being unnecessarily harmful to animals came later.

How Animal Testing Is Done

In Europe only vertebrate animals, such as mammals, birds, fish and amphibians, and a few invertebrates such as octopuses are defined as ‘animals’ by European legislation governing animal experiments. In the USA rats, mice, fish, amphibians and birds are not defined as animals under animal experiments regulations. This means no legal permission is needed to experiment on them and they are not included in any statistics. Animals used in experiments are usually bred for this purpose by the laboratory or in breeding facilities, however, while the use of wild-caught monkeys in experiments is generally banned in Europe it is still allowed on other continents.

The experiments carried out on animal can include:

  • injecting or force feeding animals with potentially harmful substances

  • exposing animals to radiation

  • dropping chemicals into animals' eyes or noses

  • surgically removing animals’ organs or tissues to deliberately cause damage

  • surgically attaching animal tissues to another animal

  • causing injury or illness to animals to test responses

  • forcing animals to inhale toxic gases

  • subjecting animals to frightening situations to create anxiety and depression

  • breeding animals with genes that cause cancers to grow to test medications

In the UK 3.4 million procedures were carried out on living animals in 2019, this is a small decrease in the number of tests done in previous years as the UK government is attempting to reduce the amount of animal testing done. However, out of all of the tests carried out on animals in 2019 only 4% were to test products or medicines that were made for animals, some of those products were rat poisons, 96% of the tests that were done were to benefit humans and out of all of these experiments around half of the animals died.

Pros And Cons

There are many arguments for and against testing on animals for the benefit of humans. It is somewhat understandable that medicines that are intended for animals are tested on those animals for safety and efficacy, but testing on animals for diseases that only humans get or testing cosmetics to see if they cause an allergic reaction seems unnecessary and cruel.

One argument for animal testing is that these tests and experiments have lead to the development of life saving treatments, vaccines and cures. The problem with this is that the treatment came before the testing, the medicine was developed before it was tested. If the medicine had been tested in another way it would still exist and medical officers of pharmaceutical companies have said that using animals is not critical to producing things like vaccines. Another argument is that testing needs to be carried out on a whole living body, that, for example, testing a lotion on a piece of lab grown skin is not the same as testing on the skin of a living animal. This is true, however there are systems that replicate a whole living system by harvesting cells and growing them into mini versions of each organ. When these miniature hearts, livers, brains and other body part are connected up they function as a whole living system allowing tests to be carried out without harming a living creature.

Another argument is that, because the DNA of animals is so similar to ours, we're basically the same, but this simply isn't true. Paul Furlong, Professor of Clinical Neuroimaging at Aston University in the UK, states that “it’s very hard to create an animal model that even equates closely to what we’re trying to achieve in the human.” Thomas Hartung, Professor of evidence-based toxicology at Johns Hopkins University, argues for alternatives to animal testing because “we are not 70 kg rats." Look at it this way, we share 61% of our DNA with fruit flies and 60% of our DNA with a banana, would testing on a fruit fly and a banana give the same results? One other problem of this is that when a test fails on an animal the medicine, cosmetic, whatever is being tested, is rejected. It could be that the test wasn't suitable to be carried out on a rat or fish and would have been fine for humans, this can lead to may discoveries never being found or discarded. Then on the flip side 92% of drugs tested on animals and deemed successful go on to fail in human trials.

Alternatives to Using Animals

There are many alternatives to animal testing and a lot of them have been available for years, they are not new and can be trusted. These alternatives are often cheaper, faster and more reliable than using animals. Also, the results of animal experiments aren't always reproducible, different animals may react in completely different ways, using different species can cause a very different outcome. Even the way that the animals are treated, what conditions they live in, how they are handled and what they are fed, can affect the results of the experiments. These factors further make animal testing unreliable, the alternatives don't have these problems.

Human cells and tissues

There are many different ways that human cells and body tissues can be used for testing, Harvard’s Wyss Institute has created “organs-on-chips” that contain human cells grown in a system that can mimic the structure and function of human organs and organ systems. The chips can be used in disease research, drug testing, and toxicity testing and have been shown to replicate human physiology, diseases, and drug responses more accurately than animal experiments do. Some companies, such as the HµRel Corporation, have already turned these chips into products that researchers can use in place of animals. At the European Union Reference Laboratory for alternatives to animal testing researchers have developed five different tests that use human blood cells to detect contaminants in drugs that cause a potentially dangerous fever response when they enter the body. This harmless method is used in place of giving these drugs to rabbits.

Computer models

Computer models have been developed to simulate a wide range human biology and the progression of developing diseases. Studies have shown that these models can accurately predict the ways that new drugs will react in the human body and replace the use of animals in research and many standard drug tests. As well as using models, databases can be used; quantitative structure-activity relationships (QSARs) are computer-based techniques that can replace animal tests by making sophisticated estimates of a substance’s likelihood of being hazardous, based on its similarity to existing substances and our knowledge of human biology. Companies and governments are increasingly using QSAR tools to avoid animal testing of chemicals, and PETA actively promotes and funds their use internationally.

Human Guinea Pigs

There are always humans that are willing to be tested on, some will do it for money, which can be unethical depending on the situation, but many are willing to undergo these experiments for the greater good. The risk of people being harmed is always evaluated before anyone is recruited, making sure that everyone is as safe as they can be. Best of all, no animals are harmed or involved in any procedure against their will, because, at the end of the day, no animal has consented to this.

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