By Jonathan Kaupanger
A bipartisan bill was introduced on Capitol Hill this week to stop VA’s medical research on dogs. The “Preventing Unkind and Painful Procedures and Experiments on Respected Species Act of 2017” or “PUPPERS Act” would stop the VA from experimenting on dogs with studies that cause significant pain or distress.
The bill is a result of a complaint filed in March with VA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) against the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center (HHMVAMC) in Richmond, VA. The complaint has seven allegations concerning animal welfare, recordkeeping and reporting violations and a failure to make appropriate public disclosure of the studies. VA’s Office of Research Oversight (ORO) conducted the investigation in April and was able to confirm some of the allegations in the complaint.
While it’s not totally accurate to say one dog year is equivalent to seven people years, everyone agrees that dogs do age faster than humans. Dogs also are susceptible to arthritis, diabetes, obesity and other human illnesses and live in the same environment as we do. Because of this, testing on dogs helps speed up biomedical research. Without animal testing vaccines for diseases like typhus, yellow fever and polio might never have been discovered.
In December 2015, the complaint states that a dog almost died when an HHMVAMC employee purportedly gave it a pentobarbital overdose during an experimental surgery, then failed to give adequate care to the dog after the surgery. The ORO report verified that the overdose was a result of staff’s failure to notice infiltration of an intravenous catheter. This caused the drug to be slowly absorbed over time and resulted in an overdose.
According to the report, the staff member monitored the dog for a while, then left work without arranging for another person to monitor the dog. The next morning, a technician arrived and gave the dog a narcotic for pain relief, as specified in the approved protocol. Once staff realized what happened, emergency treatments were conducted. The dog’s condition slowly improved and has recovered. The ORO report found that collectively the failures constituted negligence on the part of staff.
Two dogs died in April 2016 following a surgery to cut the dog’s cardiac nerves, according to the complaint. This allegation, however, was only partially substantiated by the investigation. The procedure was supposed to remove specific cardiac nerves from the main trunk of the vagal nerve.
The vagal nerve contains motor and sensory fibers and has the widest distribution in the body to supply organs, including the heart, with nerves. The investigation found that while these fibers were not intentionally disturbed, handling of both the left and right vagal nerves in a single operation possibly disrupted nervous control of digestive functions resulting in nausea, lethargy, anorexia and weight loss.
One of the dogs developed ventricular fibrillation and died while under a later procedure. The second dog was euthanized during an approved terminal procedure. ORO concludes that unanticipated surgical complications did occur, but it could not conclusively state that the complications were evidence of incompetence.
The third animal welfare allegation, from November 2016, was only partially proven. The complaint states that during a procedure to cut into the dog’s chest to expose the heart, the employee incompetently sliced into the dog’s lung.
While performing a survival surgery on a dog, the surgeon found tissue adhesions, some being more prominent than typically seen in similar surgeries. While releasing a dense adhesion, damage to the lung tissue occurred but wasn’t detected at that time. The animal became hypoxic and died before emergency treatment or euthanasia could be provided.
The record keeping portion of the complaint states that the medical center failed to publicly disclose dog experimental projects in the Federal Reporter System. It goes on to say that the incidents were not reported to the Secretary of the VA as required by law and that HHMVAMC lacked records that tracked oversight and mismanagement of the experimental failures. These complaints, however, were not proven factual as the medical center was able to produce records that had been reported to ORO and other agencies.
The final part of the complaint states that the employee who repeated botched surgeries on dogs lost their experimentation privileges, but is still listed as an active physician treating veterans at McGuire. This was not evaluated as the complaint couldn’t provide any connection between the animal research and treatment of human patients.
In a statement, Virginia Representative Dave Brat, who introduced the bill along with Representative Dina Titus from Nevada, said “The revelations regarding the dog laboratory testing at McGuire VAMC are disturbing and the descriptions are almost on the scale of torture. We must have quality health care for our veterans and the best medical research, but I believe there are alternative a more humane methods that can lead to similar medical breakthroughs.”
According to the VA’s website, the use of animals in VA research is a privilege to investigators and programs that commit to meeting the highest ethical and regulatory standards. For more information on VA’s animal research, guidance and training, you can go here.