Strategy by the numbers: How to ban dog research and testing in the US and why it would be bad for public health

January 21, 2020

The council of Richland Center, a small US city in Wisconsin, recently voted in favor of an ordinance thought to be the first in the country to ban breeding and possession of dogs and cats for research or experimentation within their city. As we wrote last week, there also doesn’t appear to be any direct local impact of the ordinance because there do not appear to be any research facilities or research animal breeders in the city. [Update 1/22/20: Minutes of the council meeting posted yesterday show that the board explicitly discussed whether their action “would be stopping a business in the city” determining that “the answer was that there is no one having a vested interest at this time” prior to their vote.]

In our recent post we analyzed the number of dogs in research in the US. Last Friday the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released new and corrected data* [2016 (corrected); 2017 (corrected); 2018]. We have analyzed the reports to update and extend our analysis of the local legislative efforts underway in Wisconsin.

Beagle playing with toy. Image courtesy of Americans for Medical Progress. CC-by-4.0

Although dogs represent a small percent of all animals used in research and testing, they have contributed to advances for a very wide range of threats to human and animal health: cancer; diabetes; heart disease; spinal cord, bone, and muscle conditions and injuries; organ and cell transplantation; and other conditions (read more here). Dogs have also been critically important to medical advances to treat veterans (read more here). Thus, legislation and events that affect the use of dogs in research and testing has the potential for broad impacts on public health.

Speaking of Research has written frequently about national legislative campaigns that could affect medical and scientific research. The campaigns increasingly focus on federally-funded research by agencies that are charged with protecting public health and safety. While national campaigns often receive headlines and national attention, events and legislation at local levels can also have serious and wide-reaching effects. Here we write about why that may be the case for the efforts to ban research dog breeding in small Wisconsin communities.

Private companies appear to be a core target of local legislative efforts  

According to our analysis of 2018 USDA data first released last Friday, Wisconsin makes up about 9% of the use of 59,401 dogs in US research or testing (Columns C-E). Wisconsin also accounts for roughly 60% of the US total number of dogs described by the USDA as: “Column B: animals held by a facility but not used in any research that year.” Approximately 97% of the dogs reported in research in Wisconsin and 99% of those held for research are in private companies that perform research, testing, or breeding for academic, pharmaceutical, or other private companies, nationally. The full detail of our analysis is below**, along with a table comparing 2017 and 2018.

*Research facilities are required to provide an annual report to the USDA to be included in a single publicly available census document. The report includes the number of AWA-covered animals in each of the four research categories described here by the USDA: “Column B (animals held by a facility but not used in any research that year); Column C (animals used in research; no pain involved; no pain drugs administered); Column D (animals used in research; pain involved; pain drugs administered); Column E (animals used in research; pain involved; no pain drugs administered); and Column F (total number Column C-E).”

Local efforts in Wisconsin, broader impacts for the US and beyond: Questions for community members and policymakers 

Wisconsin appears—by the numbers—to be a center of support for private pharmaceutical and other companies that depend on the use of animals for medical research and testing. As such, the state can be viewed as a priority target for those who seek to ban the use of animals in research and testing—in both the public and private spheres. Many national campaigns target federally-funded research and studies in public institutions, but the initiatives often fail to account for the important role that private companies play to advance medical progress. The Wisconsin numbers shown here reflect the central role that private industry plays in US research and development of new medications, medical devices, and scientific knowledge about human and nonhuman animal health. Under US law, animals, including dogs, are used in highly regulated research and testing when there are no alternatives to achieve the same purpose. In fact, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) looks to the results of animal testing for evidence of the effectiveness and safety of new drugs and products that can affect human, animal, and environmental health. Although scientists continue to develop alternatives to the use of animals, there are no substitutes yet for many of the serious health and safety questions that must be answered before drugs, devices, and products are approved for use. Further, animal studies are critical to answer many fundamental questions whose answers are key to medical progress.

What that means is that legislation that affects private companies, regardless of their location, has the potential to affect public health and safety across the country. Although a small community, or even an entire state, may elect to ban breeding or the use of some animals in research and testing, they should also consider these questions:

  • How are we currently (and previously) benefiting from health research and medical advances that depend on the use of animals?
  • What is the potential impact of jeopardizing the use of dogs in research and testing?
  • How can this decision affect public health and safety?
  • If we do not allow the work in our city (or village, state, etc.), will it take place somewhere else?
  • If we take a “not in my backyard” approach, will we also refuse medical advances and treatments developed elsewhere through the use of animals in research and testing?

Each of these questions and topics is complex; however, there are many factual and accurate resources available to people who want to learn more and inform their decision-making. These questions should be addressed not only by policymakers weighing legislation, but also the broad public affected by decisions. As we’ve said many times, companies, academic institutions, scientific organizations, advocacy groups, and others should also all play a role to facilitate sound public policy by engaging in public outreach to share accurate information about animals in research and testing.

The local ordinances have no direct effect on businesses in the community, so why are anti-animal research groups promoting them?

Passing local legislation that has little direct effect on businesses governed by local councils and government is not a new political strategy. The same approach is used, for instance, in campaigns targeting pet dog breeders and retail pet stores.

So why would those opposed to animal research focus on advocating for legislation that would have no direct effects on any businesses within a jurisdiction? One reason is that it is a way to reduce the potential for opposition. In fact, in Mount Horeb, a ballot initiative to essentially ban breeding of research dogs was met with opposition and failed. Another reason is that local ordinances and other legislation that do not directly affect businesses and institutions within a community may have a lower possibility of creating subsequent legal problems. That is, there may be no businesses or individuals with legal standing to challenge the ordinance in court.

The strategy has been successful, as illustrated by the long list of jurisdictions with various types of legislation that affects breeding and selling dogs for pets. Multiple groups and websites illustrate the various local campaigns and highlight the net effects, including Best Friends, CAPS, and the Humane Society of the US annual report (page 6). It is important to note that under US law, laboratory dogs are bred and sold by USDA licensed animal breeders and are not obtained from retail pet stores, commercial pet breeders, or animal shelters.

The legislative strategy used to impact commercial pet breeders and retail pet stores provides a context and, perhaps, a roadmap for the new efforts surrounding research dogs in Wisconsin. As such, it highlights why local ordinances that would appear to have little direct impact have received support from long-standing, national organizations opposed to the use of animals in research and testing.

Raising pressure on other districts, states, regions: Local initiatives with national support from PETA and other groups

Organized political campaigns can also make use of local legislation within a region or state to build pressure on nearby regions. We raised this possibility in several previous posts about local legislative efforts aimed at the use of dogs in research. In Wisconsin, for example, ballot initiatives or ordinances in three small communities have been the focus of groups broadly opposed to the use of animals in research and testing.

Although the efforts are led by a relatively new Wisconsin group, Dane4Dogs, they have been supported and encouraged by well-known and well-funded national groups. The National Vivisection Society (NAVS), for example, donated to pay for a billboard advertising a ballot measure against research dog breeding in Mount Horeb. PETA issued press releases and alerted its members to oppose research dog breeding in Spring Green. HSUS was predominantly featured in media coverage of the Richland Center decision.

The three Wisconsin communities—Spring Green, Mount Horeb, and Richland Center—are all in relatively close proximity to the state’s capitol, Madison. In contrast to Richland Center, the city that passed a ban on dog and cat research despite having no research facilities in the city, Madison is home to multiple institutions and companies registered with the USDA for the use of animals in research, teaching, and testing (e.g., a large private company, Covance; a large public research university, the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and a technical college, Madison Area Technical College). Madison is in Dane County, as is Mount Horeb, the location of Ridglan Farms.

Map of the Wisconsin area with Richland Center in purple near top left, Spring Green in green, and Mt. Horeb in blue. Madison is the large area containing the red marker.

There is currently no Dane County board initiative parallel to the Richland Center ordinance or the ballot measures in Spring Green and Mount Horeb. It seems reasonable to expect one as a next step–a step far more challenging, but also with potential for impact well beyond Wisconsin. Private companies impacted by such an ordinance could relocate to another state (or country) in the event that local legislation or conditions had significant negative consequences or made their work impossible. But the broader effects of legislation undertaken without considering the full range of impact sets a precedent. It is one that can undermine sound public policy that is critically important to human, animal, and environmental health, now and in the future.

Setting precedents

In addition to local or direct impacts on private companies, legislation that effectively “bans” the use of a particular species or that impedes availability of the animals can have a wide range of reverberating effects. That includes effects on scientific research in universities and colleges, as well as health research and medical testing in other states and regions. Moreover, whether successful or not, such bans can influence broader public views about research. The widespread dissemination of inaccurate information about how and why animal research and testing occurs is of particular concern, as observed in the public discussions, social media, and other coverage of the Mount Horeb, Spring Green, and Richland Center events. The false claim that feasible alternatives to all use of animals already exist and can be readily substituted with no negative consequence for human health, scientific, and medical advances, is just one example.


We hope that citizens and legislators faced with decisions that affect animal research and testing will consider the issue carefully and ensure that they have accurate information about the full range of likely consequences of those decisions. We urge scientists, academic institutions, private companies, and organizations concerned with scientific research and public health to engage in public conversations about why, when, and how animals are used in research and testing. We encourage media covering this issue to provide a deeper analysis and more balanced view than some of the coverage we’ve seen thus far of the Richland Center ordinance. Finally, we hope that citizens and policymakers will consider the much broader and longer-term consequences of decisions about local legislation.


*In our previous post (1/9/20) we noted that there appeared to be a discrepancy or ambiguity in the annual US animals in research summary report posted by the USDA for 2017. On January 17th, 2020 the USDA made a public notification that corrected reports were posted [2016 (corrected); 2017(corrected)]. The USDA posted the 2018 US Annual Report on the same day. The individual facility annual reports that were the basis for calculations in our previous post and in the current post, including Table 1, were (to our knowledge) correct in the USDA public database and remain unchanged.

**The total number of dogs used in research in the US in 2018 was 59,401, or 7.6% of the total number of animals (780,070) in research in the US. Of critical note, however, the USDA total does not include mice, rats, and fish—all of which likely make up over 90% of animals in research and testing. Under US law, dogs, cats, nonhuman primates, gerbils, hamsters, rabbits, pigs, sheep, and many other animals fall under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and the number used in research and testing must be reported annually to the USDA. Mice and rats purpose-bred for research fall under other regulation and standards, but are not included in the AWA or annual number report. Thus, while dogs account for 7.6% of the animals in the 2018 USDA report, they are likely less than 0.5% of the total that includes rats and mice (for detail, see here).

Each facility with USDA registration for research is required to submit an annual numbers report that is freely available via the searchable USDA website. (For additional details, species requirements, and explanation of the requirements see this post). The data in Table 1 is from the individual facility reports and the USDA state-by-state annual report.

Click to enlarge. @2020 Speaking of Research

Private companies reported 4,957 dogs used in research in the state of Wisconsin, 8.62% of the national total (59,401). Two companies account for the majority of the total. In 2018, Covance reported just over 88% of the total number of dogs used in research and testing in Wisconsin, about 7.5% of US total. The company accounted for 11.74% of Wisconsin’s total in USDA Column B. Ridglan Farms, the target of the Mount Horeb ballot initiative to ban breeding of research dogs, accounted for 350 dogs, or 6.83% of the dogs used in research in 2018 in Wisconsin. The company reported 3,409 dogs in Column B in 2018, or 88% of the Wisconsin total and just over half of the US total (6,387). Two small private companies accounted for the remainder of dogs reported by private research facilities in the state.

Three academic institutions accounted for 3.24%, or 166 of the state’s total of 5,123 dogs in research and 0.28% of the US total of 59,401. Roughly two-thirds were reported by colleges that offer veterinary technician degrees and that most likely use animals in teaching activities. The three academic institutions accounted for 3 of the state’s 3,866 (0.08%) dogs reported in Column B.