Frequently Asked Questions

Why experiment on animals?

Researchers study animals to understand how living organisms function and how diseases attack the body. Biological processes of many vertebrates are remarkably similar to those of humans. Therefore, researchers can investigate basic processes in relatively simpler organisms to understand larger functions, e.g. of the human body.

Did you know our current knowledge of genetics originated in the vegetable garden of Austrian consultancy monk Gregor Mendel during the 19th century? Mendel discovered the basic laws of heredity in pea plants and laid the groundwork for genetics research. Researchers were then able to study gene function through models of bacteria, yeast, worms, fruit flies and mice. Now the field of genetics has advanced to the point where whole genomes have been sequenced and genes for specific diseases have been identified for treatment. Currently, the genetic sub-fields epigenetics and gene therapy are very popular.

Furthermore, another reason for animal experimentation is that many animals suffer from diseases that also affect humans. Thus, by studying these animals researchers can learn about how diseases occur and also discover a means for prevention and treatment. These findings help both animals and humans. Scientists also study animals to find out how they adapt to different environmental conditions. This helps, among other things, to prevent the extinction of endangered species.


How can results from animal experiments to humans be transferred?

There are striking similarities between the physiological characteristics of men and animals. For instance, much of what we know today about the immune system comes from studies performed on mice. And through studies on dogs we have enabled a deeper understanding of the cardiovascular system.

Some treatment approaches, including pharmaceutical intervention require animal testing before a treatment can be applied to humans. There are medical, ethical and legal reasons why this is the case. For one, it is necessary to estimate how a treatment will affect the living biological system prior to human administration in order to minimise risks for humans. It is an ethical consideration to refrain from administering an experimental treatment on humans before it has been proven effective. Therefore, laboratory animals are an important part of scientific progress. In fact, almost every major medical breakthrough of the last century has depended on animal experimentation: Understanding Animal Research: a Health Time of Medical Health Advances.


Are not animals different from humans?

People and animals are more alike than you may think. Our biological similarities make it possible to generate human conditions in animals. Furthermore, scientists choose an animal model that they deem most appropriate for exploring a particular disease that can hopefully be transferrable to humans. Even though animals and humans differ genetically and physiologically, it is a challenge that can be overcome when studying common elements that are shared between species, such as motor and visual system processing.

Animal models for human diseases are just as good as our current understanding of human diseases. Science is an evolving process and every animal model of a disease leads to a better fundamental understanding of biological processes and contributes to the advancement of therapeutic methods. Even when the specific details of a future therapy are not yet clear, science progresses by pursuing questions about complicated biological mechanisms.


Are there alternatives to animal testing?

A detailed discussion of this issue can be found on our page for alternatives to animal testing. Nevertheless, here is a summary:

Animal welfare regulations require researchers to comply with the so-called 3 R’s (Replace, Reduce & Refine). In Germany the compliance with the 3 R’s is a statutory requirement for the approval of a research project that uses animals. In other words, according to applicable German law animal studies can only be used when there are no other alternatives.

A complete abolition of animal testing is not possible without affecting a large part of biomedical research. Computer simulations, microdoses, imaging techniques and in vitro tests are often cited as alternatives to animal testing. However, it is unlikely that these methods will ever be able to replace animal experiments (sufficiently). The reason for this is that every scientific method can only answer certain questions. Testing by cell cultures, computer models, imaging techniques and animal studies cannot replace each other. For example, computer models can be performed only if one already has information that can be fed into the model. This information, however, can only be collected from a living organism, such as a laboratory animal. In vitro experiments on molecules, such as proteins or DNA, can be performed using cell cultures, however the cells need to be obtained first, and likely come from an animal. Additionally, cell cultures are difficult to apply to questions that deal with complete tissues or bodily organs. In this case it is necessary to study the living system of interest. Thus, for the foreseeable future we have to rely on animal testing in order to answer important scientific questions and fight disease effectively.


Do animals suffer from the experiments?

Researchers, veterinarians and animal caretakers do everything in their power to minimise unnecessary pain and suffering during experiments. Many of the procedures carried out on animals, such as behavioural observations, do not inflict pain or discomfort on the animals. Nevertheless, there are methods in which severe pain or suffering is unavoidable. This is the case for studies that monitor therapeutic intervention as well as studies on painful medical conditions, e.g. serious infections or injuries. Nevertheless, the pain animals experience is mitigated by the administration of painkillers and/or anaesthetics (narcotics), similar to those given for human pain. However, it is – just as with patients – not always possible to completely eliminate pain.

In some experiments on stress, scientists measure hormonal levels and other symptoms expressed by the experimental animals. Scientists then calculate the actual load for stress. Oftentimes, only an artificial stress load is imposed on animals in these types of studies. Such artificial loads are well below the actual stress levels of pets (like dogs and cats) and the stress level of wild animals in their natural habitat. Where suffering is inevitable researchers do as much as possible to reduce the effects.

Of course, suffering is not only pain and stress. An animal can suffer even when his biological or social needs are not met. Therefore, specialised veterinarians are hired to look after the well being of all animals. In addition to providing food, water and a clean, comfortable living space it is mandatory to enrich the animal’s environment with toys, treats, etc. For instance, social animals, such as rats and monkeys, are housed in groups. Researchers try to minimise the suffering of animals as much as possible.

There are strict legal rules that ensure animals do not suffer unnecessarily. In fact, research on animals is the most regulated as compared to the use of animals for domestic purposes or for the production of meat and food. In Germany, all animal experiments must be approved by an independent council composed of, among others, veterinarians, doctors, and general members from society. This approval process carefully examines what procedures are allowed during animal tests and exactly what pain and stress levels are permitted. The animal welfare officer assigned to the research institution as well as veterinary services consistently monitors compliance with the rules. Similar rules and regulations also apply to other European and North American countries.


Why do researches use genetically modified animals?

Through the advances in genetics it is now possible to selectively modify individual genes in animals. These techniques led to a rapidly growing understanding of gene function in health and illness. The rapid growth in the field of genetics has led to better diagnostic methods for genetic diseases, such as Huntington’s disease. There is now a genetic test available that can confirm the gene expression for huntingtin protein (root of the disease) is abnormal in people who have yet to shown any symptoms (source). Diagnosis at such an early rate can help those affected manage symptoms as they occur. In addition to diagnostic testing, advances in the field of genetics have allowed for paternity tests and DNA forensics.

The animal model largely responsible for these advances was, and still is, the mouse. Almost all the genes that are present in mice are also present in people (even if the sequence or the regulation of the genes may differ). Also, mouse genes are easily modifiable, making them advantageous for studying differences in gene expression.

Research into the mouse genome is now so advanced that a specific gene can be targeted and turned off. These mice are also called “knockout mice,” and the knockout gene can be replaced by another gene to study the subsequent effects in function and behaviour. In this manner, specific changes in the animals can be induced and serve as an indispensable basis for the study of gene function. Through such techniques scientists were able to decipher the workings of countless human genes, including SRY (sex determination), leptin (regulates the feeling of hunger) and PD-1 (part of the immune system and the basis of novel anti-cancer drugs).

By altering individual genes, human hereditary diseases in animals can be simulated. For example, mice that have been bred with a gene encoding an inherited form of Alzheimer’s disease will express the symptoms similar to human patients. Such mice have enabled us to find substances that prevent the formation of Alzheimer’s typical protein deposits in the brain. It is currently tested whether these substances can slow the progression of disease in patients (see also the Fact Check Alzheimer).

Professor Pier P. Pandolfi found that a rare form of leukemia, acute promyelocytic leukemia, is caused by different gene abnormalities. Professor Pandolfi bred genetically modified mice that also had these anomalies to understand the impact of gene abnormalities in detail and to develop therapies. Working with genetically modified mice has helped make a fatal diagnosis now a very good prognosis with a 77% survival rate.

A great hope for genetics is to develop gene therapies for humans. One example is spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a disease caused by a mutation of the SMN1 gene. The genetic defect damages nerves that control the muscles, or motor neurons. Children who are born with SMA suffer from extreme muscle weakness and usually die during infancy. In a mouse model of the disease where a mouse was bred with the same genetic defect, scientists tested ways to replace the diseased gene with a healthy one. They finally succeeded with the help of a genetically modified, and otherwise harmless, virus. While untreated mice with this genetic defect die after about 14 days, treated mice were still alive after a year (to compare, healthy mice live about two years). This therapy is currently being tested in eight infected infants, of which some very promising results were already reported (as of July 2015). Achievements are also reported in the development of gene therapies against a range of other diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, Wiskott-Aldrich-Syndrome and AIDS.


Who cares about the welfare of lab animals?

Everyone who works with animals in the laboratory help to look after them. Animal welfare is directly related to the success of experiments and research outcomes. In addition, all research facilities that use animals have an animal welfare officer who ensures these animals are well taken care of. There are also numerous professional groups that actively take care of laboratory animals. Highly qualified and intensively trained animal nurses, veterinarians and scientists all actively pursue measures of animal welfare. Persons responsible for the treatment of animals exhibit compassion and respect their daily tasks. Any physical and psychological issues or concerns are reported to the competent authorities. Additionally, numerous national, regional and local regulations focus strictly on animal welfare in order to guarantee their safety.

The 3 R’s (Replace, Reduce & Refine) are guidelines for the ethical use of animals in science and research. Furthermore, scientists also help develop strategies for more efficient and safe research with animals. Responsible persons continuously work to reduce the pain and other stress loads on animals.


Do scientists who perform animal experiments earn a lot of money?

No, most scientists could earn significantly more in other areas. Instead scientists choose this type of research because they are looking for answers to complicated questions. Animal testing is often necessary to find these answers.

Research grants are generally scarce and will remain so. According to NIH, from 2012 to 2013 there was a decrease in the success rate for competing research project grants. In 2013, only 16.8% of grant applications were successful in securing research funds.

Additionally, animal experiments are very expensive. For instance, accommodation, food, and adequate care from well-trained staff, including nurses and veterinarians, are all expensive costs. Animal experiments are critical to the continued progress of science and human and animal health. The reward most researchers seek is not money, but treatment options to help benefit the lives of people and animals.


Is basic research important for medical progress?

Basic research is knowledge-oriented research and it does not necessarily lead directly to health products or therapy. Some people fail to recognise the value of this research. They think it is meaningless, and therefore not worth the tax money, nor an ethical justification for experimenting on animals. Some speak disparagingly of “curiosity research” that should not be supported.

Since the dawn of humanity, human curiosity has meant that our living conditions were getting better. Through curiosity-driven insights, scientists have optimised the use of resources, improved food production and also living communities. Ever since the Enlightenment, curiosity and a systematic process of study has served to improve all areas of life and people. Curiosity and the resulting research has long-lasting effects – much longer than the horizon of most people.

Science is – even if planned wisely -always a departure into the unknown. The path of discoveries is only partly predictable. When the decisive breakthrough will succeed, no one can estimate. Often it is not even known exactly what will be the breakthrough. For basic science one thing is clear: all experiments are stringently performed to provide valuable insights with the potential to be used in the future as a basis for the creation of new applications and improvements.

A simple example of this concept is the prosperity of German auto manufacturing. For building cars, we rely on the field of mechanics –  “curiosity research” carried out by physicists like Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei over three-hundred-years ago. Therefore, it is shortsighted and selfish to suggest that basic science “does not help me.” The basic scientific findings form the basis for the prosperity of future generations. This is explained well by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Basic research ” is the starting point for technological innovation and for aiming at sustainable development of economy and society.

Basic biomedical research that uses animal testing is no exception. Biomedical research directly (as in better health) and indirectly (as an economic use) contributes to the improvement of living conditions for the future generations.

Exactly these considerations are also the reason why animal testing for basic research is permitted under the German animal protection law (of course after passing through the statutory approval procedures).


Is it true that many doctors are against animal testing?

The German Medical Association represents approximately 420,000 physicians in Germany. The Scientific Advisory Board of the German Medical Association has spoken out clearly for animal experiments:

“Where the conservation, rescue, promotion and protection of human life undeniably demand the sacrifice of animals, both the use of animals for experiments as well as their killing under condition of pain alleviation and adherence to the principle of proportionality are permitted within the limits of law (Opinion of Scientific Advisory Board of the German Medical Association on Xenotransplantation).”

The German Medical Association is a member of the World Medical Association and represents more than 10 million physicians worldwide.

The World Medical Association stated clearly that it considers animal experiments necessary for medical progress:

“The ability of the scientific community to continue its efforts to improve personal and public health is being threatened by a movement to eliminate the use of animals in biomedical research. This movement is spearheaded by groups of radical animal rights activists whose views are considered to be far outside mainstream public attitudes and whose tactics range from sophisticated lobbying, fund-raising, propaganda and misinformation campaigns to violent attacks on biomedical research facilities and individual scientists (Declaration of the World Medical Association for Biomedical Research on Animals, 2006 ).”

A representative survey in the UK showed that 96% of general practitioners hold the opinion that animal experiments have made important contributions to medical development. Eighty-eight percent agreed that new drugs should be tested first on animals.

Similarly unambiguous is the opinion of scientists. A Pew Research Center survey has shown that 89% of the world’s largest scientific society (AAAS) were in favour of the use of animals in research. Only 9% were opposed with 2% undecided or invalid. There are very few issues where the consensus among scientists and physicians is as high as in whether animal experiments are necessary.


Are there any arguments against animal experimentation?

There is always an ethical question to consider when deciding if animal experimentation is necessary. Some ethical approaches, i.e. zoocentrism, have concluded that killing an animal is so immoral that it cannot be offset by a greater benefit. Under this view, the majority of animal tests are banned as well as the eating of meat, pest control, and in the most extreme interpretation, also keeping pets.

However, most ethical approaches are more liberal and permit animal experimentation under certain conditions. For instance, only when there is no alternative for this type of experimentation and/or it is absolutely needed to improve human/veterinary medicine and environmental protection will suffering of an animal be permitted.

We are currently working on a more detailed outline of animal treatment and ethics that is soon to come.


How can we meet animal rights extremism?

Animal rights extremism can and needs to be tackled from many angles. Our goal is to support this process by encouraging scientists to speak out and talk about their research. Thereby, informing the public through hard facts about the research. Some organisations and institutions have asked scientists in the past to keep a low profile and downplay any connection to animal experiments. We believe that this is the wrong approach. Only if scientists talk about their work can the importance of biomedical research move back into the public spotlight and motivate society to deal with such issues. Moreover, support from the public for research will only help to preserve the integrity of science.



With materials and translations of Speaking of Research .

For more animal research FAQs here are some more sites: Americans for Medical Progress – FAQs

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