March 16, 2020 -- George spent the first 4 years of his life in a research laboratory in Virginia. "I picked him up in suburban Washington, D.C., just hours out of the research lab,” says George’s adopted mom, Gail Thomssen.
Two-year old Teddy was one of 32 beagles put up for adoption after being released from a Michigan lab last April.
Eight hundred families applied to adopt them through the Michigan Humane Society. Greta Rubello, Teddy’s adopted mom, says she feels like she won the lottery.
“We had to acknowledge that this pet was, this dog was used in a study and may suffer some ill health effects,” she says. “He definitely could develop something, but he’s very healthy at this point and we’ve had him for almost a year.”
The FDA uses a variety of animals, including dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, and some farm animals, to test the safety and effectiveness of drugs, vaccines and other biologics, and medical devices.
Still, 95% of all of animals in research are mice and rats bred in the lab.
According to the agency nearly 2,000 animals regulated by the Animal Welfare Act were used or bred for research in 2018. More than a quarter of them had some type of pain or distress.
In November, the agency approved an internal policy that allows research animals to be adopted.
“The FDA has supported and continues to support the transfer, adoption, or retirement of FDA-owned research study animals that have completed their assigned studies and meet applicable eligibility criteria,” FDA spokesperson Monique Richards told WebMD.
The FDA in November created rules on what makes animals fit “for adoption, retirement and transfer.”
Richards says all animals simply are not suited for being adopted.
“Certain studies may require euthanasia to allow tissue collection and analysis, in order to gain important information needed to prevent human and animal suffering for many life-threatening diseases,” she says.
The agency’s veterinarians help decide which animals can be adopted, but none have been since November.
VA and NIH Adoption Policies
Both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Veterans Affairs have adoption policies.
The NIH says the agency’s policy, which has been in effect since 1995, is that adoptions are decided on a case-by-case basis.
Justin Goodman is vice president of advocacy and public policy at the White Coat Waste Project, a watchdog group working to end government experiments. He says more than 1 million advocates from his organization urged Congress and these agencies to adopt these policies.
“Taxpayers bought these animals, and we want Uncle Sam to give them back, so it’s important that these agencies have policies in place allowing animals no longer needed in experiments to be either adopted out to private homes or sent to sanctuaries to live out the rest of their lives.”
“We’re encouraged,” Goodman says, “that agencies are making this issue a priority because it is so widely supported by taxpayers, scientists, bipartisan lawmakers, and even the animal testing industry itself is supportive of lab animal adoptions.“
Legislation to allow adoption is catching on.
This past July, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-ME, introduced a bill that would amend federal law to allow for the adoption of dogs, cats, primates, rabbits, and other regulated animals from all government labs.
According to Collins, more than 50,000 of these animals -- mostly dogs, cats, rabbits, and monkeys -- were used in government labs in 2018.
“There is no reason animals that are suitable for adoption or retirement should be killed by our federal agencies,” Collins says. “Our bipartisan legislation continues to build on the successful policies at [the Department of Defense], VA, and NIH while directing other federal agencies to facilitate and encourage the retirement of animals to help ensure they are placed in loving homes or sanctuaries whenever possible.”
The Humane Society of the United States worked with 11 states that now have adoption policies for research dogs and cats.
In fact, in 2018, George and his owner were instrumental in getting bills passed in Maryland and Delaware. George was there with each governor on signing day.
‘They Can Thrive in a Home Setting’
“These animals have proven time and time again that they can thrive in a home setting,” says Nina Wertan, program manager at the Humane Society of the United States.
“The FDA policy states that the animals must not have compromised health and have acceptable behavior. However, behavioral challenges,” she says, “are something that rescue organizations deal with on a daily basis, so they have experience placing animals into homes that will best suit their needs. These dogs have just as much a chance as any other dog to be successful in becoming a family pet.”
Both Thomssen and Rubello say their research dogs have been amazing additions to their family.
“He’s such a playful, happy, very loving, very affectionate dog. When I first got him, he was such a scared, timid dog,” Thomssen remembers.
“I would do it again in a heartbeat. He’s been an angel.”
Matthew Bailey is president of the National Association for Biomedical Research. The group works for sound policies for the humane use of animals in research.
“The vast majority of institutions working with animal models already have such guidance, documents, and policies in place and have had for many years,” he says. “We certainly support the adoption of laboratory animals where and when it’s feasible, and many of these policies -- whether at a university, a government research laboratory, a pharmaceutical company, or a contract research organization -- are based on an excellent guidance document that was developed by the American Veterinary Medical Association.”
Bailey cautions that while some of these animals might be suitable health-wise, there are behavioral issues to consider.
“The last thing I would like to see is for our hard-working biomedical research institutions who are desperately trying to come up with treatments and cures for illnesses like the coronavirus, and who are spending federal tax dollars wisely, basically be turned into adoption agencies,” he says. “American research institutions have great adoption policies in place, but we need to let them exercise their best discretion over who, what, when, where, why, and how. Research animals are not pets. These animals have been purposely bred for research. Some may turn out to be good pets, but it is not the same thing as adopting an animal from your local shelter.”
‘Our Dogs Are Projects’
Beagles are one of the more popular breeds for research. Kate Aubry, founder and president of the BeFreegle Foundation, has worked tirelessly for 5 years to give research dogs a “new leash” on life.
“These dogs provide a lot of joy to those who adopt them. They make wonderful pets, so I applaud the FDA for doing this.”
Aubry works directly with labs across the country. They have “re-homed” over 200 beagles, and she says they’re just getting started.
“I always tell our adopters that our dogs are projects. Patience is a must. Everything we take for granted is new to them. They’ve never been outside before they come to us, they’re not house-trained and don’t know how to walk on leash. It’s our job to help them to learn the new rules.”
Aubry passionately believes any pain and stress they’ve had as a result of the testing should not affect their adoption.
“We don’t know what studies our dogs have been a part of, we don’t know if they were subjected to pain and stress. I imagine some of them are, yet they are highly adoptable and adaptable to their new environment.”
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has a longstanding policy on adoption for a range of research animals including small rodents, lizards, dogs, and cats.
Most of its testing is on fish, rats, and mice, and research at its labs run the spectrum: from testing treatments for Parkinson’s disease, to veterinary medicine for companion animals with cancer or other health issues, and treating disease in agricultural animals like dairy cows and fish.
Allyson Bennett, PhD, the faculty director of the university’s animal program, says the school has had a formal adoption policy since 2012.
“If the animal’s healthy, if the animal’s no longer needed for research or teaching, if the animal has a suitable temperament and health to be a pet, and that would be determined by university veterinarians and research staff, then it would be eligible for adoption,” she says.
Bennett says the animals are often adopted by staff or veterinarians.
“It’s important to have a conversation publicly about the benefits and risks of policies, and decisions about research animal retirement, and the broad context. One of the pieces that I think is not being included in some of the discussion is the fact that that all animals will not be eligible for retirement.”
Bennett says these animals need to live in homes with people who have the knowledge, ability, and resources necessary to care for them long-term.
Rubello is grateful for the opportunity to care for Teddy and says the lab identification number stamped inside the dog’s ear is a reminder every day of just how far he’s come.
“He’s an amazing dog, and he’s added so much to our family,” she says. “I just think people should have the opportunity to adopt these dogs and give them the comfort and care that they deserve.”