Pound Seizure

The Physicians Committee

Pound Seizure

By Neal D. Barnard, M.D.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine opposes the practice of releasing animals from shelters or pounds for use in experimentation, sometimes referred to as pound seizure. PCRM is a national nonprofit organization that addresses several issues in medicine and research.

Most cities that are homes to leading research centers no longer allow the release of pound animals to research laboratories. Boston, the home of Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other universities; Baltimore, the home of Johns Hopkins University; as well as New York City and Washington, D.C., are among the areas that have chosen not to release animals for research.

The National Institutes of Health intramural researchers never use animals from pounds. The National Institute of Mental Health also makes no use of pound animals in its intramural research.

The economic factors are straightforward. Many have shown that the use of pound animals is penny-wise and pound-foolish. While these animals are inexpensive in initial purchase price, they require quarantine and veterinary treatment to rid them of the infections and parasites they have acquired on the streets. Quarantine typically lasts for 30 days. The caging space, personnel costs, feeding, and veterinary care are not free. Replacing the animals who die from infections also escalates costs. So while the initial price may be low, the savings are rapidly eroded. This may show up in budgets other than those of the principal investigators, but such costs are nonetheless real and have been well-known for decades.

A memo to personnel using dogs at the University of California at San Francisco Animal Care Facility dated March 22, 1982, reported:

[N]ormally 60-70 percent [of random-source] dogs develop clinical signs of infectious respiratory disease within the first 10-14 days. You may expect a 10-15 percent mortality rate of assigned animals during this conditioning period.

A publication of the National Institutes of Health (NIH publication 72-333) reports:

In addition to altering experiment results, the use of pound dogs may also increase research costs, in spite of the initial low cost of the dog....The cost of the dogs is a minor part of the expense, yet the untimely death of each subject dog escalates the overall cost of experimentation.

The quality of research is another consideration. Animals from shelters often carry diseases. It is entirely unknown what diseases they may have had and what medications, if any, they may have been given. Their ages are unknown. These factors are important in research. Imagine testing a medicine for heart disease in dogs who, unbeknownst to the researcher, had previously had heartworm or cardiac damage from other infections. These factors can destroy experimental results. There is no way researchers can know the histories of these animals. Just as they would never consider using rats from the streets in research, there is no reason to use dogs from this source.

These problems may cause experimental results to be uninterpretable. As a result, more animals are then used in repeat experiments. So rather than save money or animals’ lives, the use of animals from this source often costs more money and more animals’ lives.

It is true that many animals in pounds who are not adopted will be euthanized. But this is certainly not an argument in favor of pound seizure. First, it is precisely those animals who are most adoptable that experimenters tend to choose. They prefer docile, well-socialized, medium-sized animals, precisely the animals likely to be adopted. Second, there is no comparison between humane euthanasia in a shelter and the experience of an animal in a laboratory experiment before being killed. In 1987, Robert Eckstein studied the fate of mongrel dogs in 52 experimental protocols taken randomly from the published literature. The median length of experiments was about 10 days. Thirty-two percent of the experiments lasted longer than one month. The longest in his study lasted five and one-half years. Sixty-six percent of the experiments involved significant pain. Thirteen percent involved severe pain on unanesthetized animals. One in 10 dogs died accidentally in the course of experiments. The conclusion is clear: animals used in experiments suffer far more than those who are humanely euthanized in the shelter.

Some institutions have used animals from pounds in medical education, but this is an area where the use of animals is falling out of favor. The September 1988 issue of Journal of Medical Education reported our national survey of medical schools, which showed that there are now many schools that do not use animals at all in their medical curriculum. The most common use of animals was in physiology classes, but only 53 percent of medical schools use animals for this purpose. Only 25 percent use animals to teach pharmacology, and only 19 percent use them in surgery. The trend is clearly for medical schools to move away from the use of animals in education. The alternatives used at U.S. medical schools are simple: lectures, readings, and the increased use of clinical experience. Computer models, videotapes, and simulator models are helpful as well.

There are often ethical questions regarding the source of subjects for research. It is our judgment that pounds or shelters can never be ethically used as a source of supply. This is because pound seizure forces experimentation interests to conflict with animal control needs.

Animal control is a difficult job in the best of times. Animal control officers must rely on the goodwill of the public if sick, injured, or abandoned animals are to be brought into shelters. People bringing animals into a shelter expect that animals will either be adopted or humanely euthanized. If a person bringing an injured or sick animal into a shelter sees an animal dealer loading animals from the back door of the shelter, the person will very likely turn around and choose not to leave the animal at the facility. When people know that pound seizure is routine, they tend to leave animals on the street. There, animals are likely to breed more litters, carry parasites, or contract diseases such as distemper or rabies, which, in turn, can aggravate public health problems. Studies in New Mexico and Washington, D.C., showed that pound release practices measurably erode public confidence in animal control facilities. A tough job gets even tougher.

But it is not only the public that is discouraged by pound seizure. Management and employees of shelters are adversely affected, as well. In consultations with numerous jurisdictions, we have never seen an effective animal control program in any city or county that permitted pound seizure. Medical researchers should never try to save a few dollars at the expense of an already overburdened animal control system.

Inferior animal control, marked by a lack of public confidence and the ever-present threat of rabies and other diseases spread by uncontrolled animal populations, should not be tolerated by progressive states. Banning pound release is the first step in a modern animal control program.

Having seen many jurisdictions deliberate over this issue, I am well aware that those who favor pound release do so because they fear the encroachment of regulation on research. They should be reminded that it has always been necessary to regulate research. The instances of abuse of human and animal subjects are well-known in the medical community. Just as unethical sources of human subjects are shunned, one should turn away from conducting research at the expense of other public institutions.

There is no doubt that researchers will give examples of experiments that used pound animals. And they will assert that these experiments would be impossible if the cost of animals were to be increased. It has to be remembered that animal costs are always small in comparison with staff salaries, facilities costs, computers, and medical equipment.