The National Institutes of Health has announced that starting October 1, 2012, NIH funds may no longer be used to buy cats from Class B dealers. A similar prohibition in the purchase of dogs from Class B dealers takes effect in 2015.
Although dogs and cats constitute only small percentage of research animals, they have been used in American biomedical research for over a century for studies of cardiovascular and neurological diseases, and for other areas of research including recent studies that led to a gene therapy for the eye disease Leber’s congenital amaurosis, whose success was reported widely last week. The use of these animals is tightly regulated by the Animal Welfare Act, and they are only employed for studies where lower species do not provide adequate models.
Class B dealers are individuals licensed by the USDA under the Animal Welfare Act to resell animals they did not breed themselves. Class A dealers are breeders who do raise the animals themselves. Class B dealers may purchase dogs and cats from sources such as municipal pounds, from individuals who bred and raised the animals, and from other licensed dealers. They are required to keep records on where they got each animal and to hold pound animals for a minimum period so that if an unwanted animal was actually a stray, the owner has time to reclaim it.
Class B dealers used to provide a large number of cats and dogs for research because they were virtually the only source for older animals and for some breeds. Regrettably, some Class B dealers used practices that violated the Animal Welfare Act both in terms of how they acquired animals and how they treated them. The National Academies of Science studied the specific areas of science where Class B dogs and cats were being used and concluded that NIH could develop alternate supply mechanisms to replace them. NIH decided the best way to facilitate the transition was to provide an initial outlay of funds so that Class A dealers could begin raising older dogs of the breeds required for scientific research. It is expected that these breeders will be able to produce the necessary animals by 2015.
After October 1, 2012, NIH-grant supported research can only use cats from the following sources: Class A dealers, privately owned research colonies, or client owned animals, such as animals that participate in veterinary clinical trials. The same policy will apply to dogs in 2015 when the Class A breeding program is in full swing.
The transition of NIH-funded research away from the use of Class B dogs and cats is an example of how measures can be taken to correct ethical problems regarding the treatment of animals. When ethical concerns exist, thoughtful and deliberate steps can address those concerns, while preserving important biomedical research projects.
Bill Yates and Alice Ra’anan.
Bill Yates is the Chair of American Physiological Society Animal Care and Experimentation Committee. Alice Ra’anan is Director of Science Policy for the American Physiological Society. The views expressed above are exclusively those of Bill Yates and Alice Ra’anan and do not necessarily represent those of their employers.