Vivisection at the RVC: the details and the ethics

What have you discovered about the RVC and animal experiments?

At the end of 2015, there were media reports of Royal Veterinary College researchers breeding dogs with a genetic flaw, which led to them suffering a canine version of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. These animals were undergoing routine blood tests and muscle biopsies. Symptoms included muscle-wasting and breathing problems. To limit their suffering, the animals are put down at around 18 months of age. This year, the test programme enters a new experimental phase, involving the introduction of laboratory-manufactured genetic material – a process that could lead to a range of unpredictable, physiological problems. When newspaper journalists came to us for comments we made it clear that the idea of vets, of all people, conducting painful experiments on animals was thoroughly objectionable. We researched further and discovered that RVC personnel were conducting around 9,000 experiments on animals each year, and that the species used included chickens, rats, pigs, mice, equines and even salamanders.

Is this research for human or veterinary medicine?

The answer to that question was unclear from what was in the public domain, so we used the Freedom of Information Act to establish that literally thousands of these experiments were directed at advancing human, not veterinary, medicine. For instance, more than 3,200 ‘procedures’ linked to ‘human nervous and mental disorders’ were conducted on rodents. There were also more than 100 mice used for human cancer studies. Even the Muscular Dystrophy experiments on the dogs were designed principally to advance knowledge of the human condition. Other categories of research using animals included human cardiovascular disorders, human gastrointestinal disorders and human musculoskeletal disorders.

Examples of animals being used in studies to advance human medicine include:

Categories where human medicine is not specified as the purpose included ‘cardiovascular, blood and lymphatic system’, ‘immune system’, ‘musculoskeletal system’, ‘nervous system’ as well as ‘genetically altered with a harmful phenotype’. (A phenotype is how the genes are expressed outwardly in the body.)

But if this helps people, isn’t it OK?

It depends on your vantage point and what is meant by ‘OK’. Some people will take all kinds of moral shortcuts if someone they care about (including themselves) is threatened by disease or is desperately vulnerable. But, the use of animals as surrogate human beings is done, not because it is moral, but because the animals are helpless to resist. So while we understand why people want animals used, we believe this is not a moral act but simply an expedient one, given that the lives of those animals are as precious to them as ours are to us.

Besides, a wealth of evidence demonstrates that data generated from animal ‘models’ of human disease cannot be reliably applied to human medicine. This is due to differences, between species, on every physiological level (from cells to whole organ systems) between species. Problems also arise because the disease or damage won’t be naturally occurring but will have been artificially induced in the animal (e.g. by chemical poisoning to produce a cancer, or through surgical mutilation to mimic organ failure). Another key shortcoming is that drugs work differently in different species. What cures cancer in a mouse is often ineffectual in humans; and what poisons a human being, may have little impact on a dog.

What about veterinary medicine - isn’t that OK?

Groups of human beings are not used in experimental surgical procedures and chemical tests that are known to be painful and damaging. This is because it is considered unethical to do so. When drug companies develop and test drugs, there are strict rules (not always observed) about the risks to which volunteers and patients may be subjected. The intention is to do as little harm as possible. It is certainly not permitted to subject them to chemicals or surgical procedures that are calculated to be damaging or even lethal. The same rules should apply to animals used for veterinary medicine, and the RVC should respect and work to such a code. Plainly, it doesn’t.

There are also scientific problems arising from using animals in laboratories to develop and test veterinary drugs – namely, the laboratory environment itself, with all the associated stressors , such as blood tests, close confinement, biopsies and separation from natural family groupings; plus the inability to engage in natural behaviours. The proximity of humans is an additional source of stress not to be underestimated. All of these factors combine to influence test results and render them unreliable.

Don’t vets have to swear an oath?

Yes they do. On admission to membership of The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), and in exchange for the right to practise veterinary surgery in the UK, every practitioner makes the following declaration:

"I PROMISE AND SOLEMNLY DECLARE that I will pursue the work of my profession with integrity and accept my responsibilities to the public, my clients, the profession and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, and that, ABOVE ALL, my constant endeavour will be to ensure the health and welfare of animals committed to my care."

How does the RVC explain why it’s using animals in research?

After learning of the canine Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy experiments, Animal Aid telephoned the head of the team concerned and said to him; ‘You wouldn’t use a cohort of humans, would you? These animals are at your disposal, they cannot defend themselves…’ His defence came in two parts. The first was that the RVC does not use people’s pets in invasive experiments, only ‘animals associated with research purposes’. This seemed to us a self-serving justification, which has no basis in biology. The second justification can be summed up as: Where would you rather these experiments took place - in a veterinary college or a regular university department? Our answer was ‘Neither’.

What does Animal Aid say about using animals in this way?

The dogs used for the DMD research are as capable of suffering distress, pain and lasting harm as any dog living in a human home. They are not different animals – the RVC ‘distinction’ is purely one of convenience. Animals are intelligent, sentient beings and should be treated as such – from the tiny mouse to the much bigger horse – all animals deserve respect and to be treated with dignity and kindness, not as mere research tools.