gettyimages 161106917 In 2017, should the VA still be testing on dogs?

Three young King Charles Cavalier spaniels sit in their cages waiting to get out. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

By Jonathan Kaupanger

Should experiments on dogs continue at the Department of Veterans Affairs?

Wait… don’t answer that yet. Let me dig up some information first so we can discuss this properly.

Full disclosure: I’m pretty much on one side of this argument.  I’m even married to a vegetarian who won’t eat meat because of what he considers to be unethical treatment of animals.  We have two dogs, a beautiful German Shepherd, who’s my shadow, and a very sweet little pit bull, Ted, who has cancer.  Ted has to take seven pills a day to help keep the disease in check and at least two of these pills were developed through animal testing.  If that doesn’t mess with your head, I’m not sure what will.

The best place to start with this is why dogs are used as research tools in the first place. Dogs are susceptible to many of the same illnesses as humans.  They live in the same environment with us, but age faster than we do.  Because of this, biomedical research happens faster when testing on dogs.  Some breeds, like beagles, are used by researchers because they are small and docile, so it’s just easier to do testing.

Earlier this month, VA Secretary, Dr. David J. Shulkin, wrote an opinion piece on this issue.  In this, he points out some of the major advances in medicine that happened because of canine research.  We have implantable cardiac pacemakers, artificial pancreas, the discovery of insulin and as we know in our house, new treatments for cancer because of testing on dogs.  These advancements have saved countless lives, you can’t argue with that.

Secretary Shulkin also points out that the VA’s animal research program are “some of the safest and most humane in the world.” He says that the agency meets and exceeds ethical requirements for animal research.

About a week after this was published the former rear admiral of the Medical Corps of the US Navy responded to Shulkin’s opinion piece by posting his own letter to the editor. In it, Marion J. Balsam, MD, says that VA’s “painful dog experiments” are wasteful and abusive.  He says that experimenting on dogs and other animals is slow and expensive.  He goes on to say that the outcomes rarely apply to humans and that in the past decade there has been major advancements in using non-animal types of research.

Dr. Shulkin says in his piece that the medical and scientific community agree that canine research is needed. He even points out support from veterans groups like Paralyzed Veterans of America, the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans.  But it’s not hard to find a combat-disabled veteran who disagrees with the Secretary and these veterans’ organizations.

Johnny Joey Jones who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, gave his view on the subject as well.  And while he isn’t opposed to all animal research, he does support the bipartisan PUPPERS Act which would prohibit federal funding for the VA’s dog experiments.  He pointed out that the Pentagon banned using dogs for live tissue training back in the ‘80’s and still doesn’t use dogs for this purpose.  A paragraph in his article points out that the VA will cut dogs up but yet refuses to provide them to help vets with PTSD.

“Reducing unnecessary animal research is a noble goal,” said Shulkin in his opinion piece. He continued with the fact that helping veterans and other Americans is an even better goal, even if some studies involve dogs and other animals.  He goes on to say that new technology has replaced animals in some cases, but computer models can’t be built until biology and physiology is totally understood.

While this is going on for humans, the same is happening for dogs. A professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University has discovered that dogs have emotions just like humans.  Another study, this one in Hungary, has discovered that while dogs don’t really comprehend our language, they do process the emotions of others very close to how humans do, in fact they are wired to do this specifically for humans.  This is probably why they make such good companion animals.

It also could be why they make such good test subjects as well.

There’s a logical and emotional side to this argument. My heart wins over my brain with this one, but what about you?

Should experiments on dogs continue at the Department of Veterans Affairs?

Connect: @JonathanVets1 |

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