Advocates and lawmakers attempting to shut down dog testing at the Department of Veterans Affairs have a new adversary – a group of disabled veterans concerned that stopping the research would limit future medical advancements.
A measure to stop funding for VA research that causes pain to dogs passed the House floor on July 26 as part of a multi-agency funding bill. It was supported by Republicans and Democrats and drew no opponents on the House floor.
This week, though, Paralyzed Veterans of America, a veterans service organization, spoke out against it.
“We have an investment in research, period,” said PVA Executive Director Sherman Gillums. “There were so many benefits to research that weren’t considered when this bill was put out.”
In most instances of animal research, the VA uses mice or rats, Michael Fallon, the VA chief veterinary medical officer, said in a written statement. Dogs are used in some cases because of their physiological similarities to humans.
Dog testing helped the VA develop the cardiac pacemaker, a VA spokesman said. VA researchers are now using dogs to better understand heart conditions, study how to prevent fatal lung infections and develop glucose sensors for diabetics, among other things.
“VA’s animal research program has saved lives in the past and will save lives in the future,” Fallon said. “It’s important for people to recognize that canine research is essential to developing crucial medical advancements.”
Gillums said he was frustrated that the potential medical benefits for veterans weren’t raised in debate on the measure. He wrote an opinion column that was published this week in The Hill, with the aim of “filling in the gaps in understanding that lead to this bill.”
He wrote he represents “tens of thousands” of veterans with specialized needs who could benefit from advancements made through animal testing.
“We are the stakeholders,” Gillums said. “The catastrophically disabled veteran population, I think, might give balance to this discussion that they had without us in the room.”
The animal rights group White Coat Waste Project has been advocating since early this year for the legislation, which also has support of the Humane Society of the United States. White Coat Waste Project was founded by a former Republican strategist and frames animal rights as a conservative issue by linking it to the waste of taxpayer dollars.
Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., who introduced the bill, took that message to the House floor.
“These dog testing experiments at the VA are consuming limited taxpayer dollars,” the congressman said. “My family had a Doberman, and he was part of our family. I can’t imagine conducting these kind of tests on man’s best friend.”
The bill would stop funding on research that causes pain or distress to dogs, even when the pain could be relieved with anesthetics. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev.; Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla.; Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas; Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., helped introduce it.
Earlier this year, White Coat Waste Project used reports of animal welfare violations at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Va., to strengthen its case against any animal testing in government research. An Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee determined researchers at the McGuire VA failed to comply with federal humane care regulations, leading to the deaths of three dogs during experiments in 2016, reports obtained from the VA by White Coat Waste Project show.
Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees are oversight bodies that ensure experiments remain in compliance with federal policies on humane care for laboratory animals. Any facility using animals for federally funded research must have a committee.
The Richmond VA notified the committee of the incidents, and the committee determined there were violations of federal policies. In all instances, the committee ordered corrective action plans.
Gillums argued the legislation passed by the House last month was an overreaction to those violations.
“I just think it went way too far,” he said. “I didn’t see a rampant violation of policy across VA.”
White Coat Waste Project also brought to light another proposed VA experiment in Los Angeles that would have involved giving 18 narcoleptic Dobermans antidepressants or methamphetamine. Researchers would then kill the dogs and study how the drugs affect the body’s response to allergens.
When Titus and eight other members of Congress from California questioned the experiment in June, the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center halted it.
Poe brought up the experiment when urging lawmakers to end dog testing.
“I’ve had three Dalmatians over the years, and I know there are a lot of other people who have dogs,” the congressman said. “The thought our VA would go ahead and torture dogs in the name of science and experiments is not acceptable. We want the VA to stop torturing dogs in the name of science.”
A VA spokesman contended the research is humane, and that when the VA finds problems in its animal testing, “we report them, fix them and hold those responsible accountable.”
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