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News & Views August 2018 Issue

For Dogs Used in Research, a New Leash on Life

Alex_Ugalek | Bigstock

Because of their docile nature, beagles are the dogs most often used in scientific research.

It’s a particularly fraught conundrum. On one hand, using dogs in laboratory research has led to improved cancer treatments, the discovery of insulin, the development of the pacemaker, more effective pharmaceuticals, and the heart-lung machine used in open-heart surgery — advances that in many cases have helped dogs themselves as well as people. On the other hand, the sturm and drang has intensified between the 44 percent of Americans who live with dogs as pets and the researchers who depend on them to improve health. No matter how much medical good lab dogs do, more and more people see their dogs as family members and do not like the idea of their pets’ species mates having to live in cages and be subjected to possibly dangerous, toxic, and sometimes painful treatments — even for the noble cause of medicine. Perhaps that’s part of the reason that in 1979, some 211,000 dogs were used in biomedical research and in 2016, 61,000. (For perspective, more than 3 million dogs enter shelters each year, according to the ASPCA.)

For some, any number is too many. But those who object to using dogs in scientific experimentation can now at least take heart that once the research is complete, lab dogs have an improved chance of a good life with a family. Two states, Maryland and Delaware, have just this past spring enacted laws that say research facilities are required to put healthy dogs up for adoption once the research has been conducted rather than euthanize them, which in the past was the norm. They follow six other states that passed such bills since 2014: Minnesota, Connecticut, Nevada, California, Illinois, and New York. And five more states are currently legislating similar “Beagle Freedom” laws — so-called because beagles are the breed most commonly used in research due to their docile nature. Coming around the legislative bend are Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Jersey.

The laws do not interfere with the research itself. That’s a legislative — and emotional — battle that, while related, is fought on a different front. But dog lovers who can’t square their strong feelings for canines with the improvements to medicine that have come out of dog-based research can derive comfort from the fact that when a dog’s life in the lab has ended, in more and more states, it doesn’t mean her life automatically has to end, too.

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