What is the HSUS doing to address pain and distress in animal research?

The HSUS launched its Pain and Distress Campaign with a goal of eliminating avoidable and significant pain and distress in animal research by the year 2020.
This goal is being accomplished mainly through encouraging oversight agencies to strengthen regulations, policies and guidelines; requesting research institutions to prohibit the conduct of research that will cause severe and unalleviated pain and distress, and encouraging the public to become involved.

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Who regulates pain and distress in research?

Two main laws apply to animals in laboratories:

  • the Animal Welfare Act, enforced by the United States Department of Agriculture,
  • the Public Health Service Policy on the Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, monitored by that National Institutes of Health’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare.

Improvements in regulation and policy regarding animal pain and distress are essential to the goal of eliminating pain and distress.

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What percentage of animals experience pain and/or distress during experiments?

Research institutions using animals covered under the AWA report to the USDA the number of animals and species used as well as whether drugs were provided for pain and/or distress relief.

Under the USDA’s categorization system, animals are placed in:

  • Column C (experiments involving no pain, distress, or pain-relieving drugs)
  • Column D (experiments involving pain or distress but with accompanying anesthetic, analgesic, or tranquilizers)
  • Column E (experiments involving pain or distress for which pain-relieving drugs would interfere with the purpose of the experiment and were, therefore, not provided)

In 2007, those animals experiencing unrelieved pain or distress (Column E) constituted almost 8 percent of the total animals used in research. However, this number does not accurately portray the actual percentage since it does not include purpose-bred mice, rats, and birds, who make up approximately 90 percent of animals used in research.

In addition, the HSUS has found many cases in which institutions have underreported the number of animals in Column E.

Statistics from other countries demonstrate that approximately 20-35 percent of research involves at least moderate pain and/or distress.

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Which animal most commonly experiences pain and/or distress in experiments?

Hamsters were the commonly used animal in experiments causing pain and/or distress in 2007. Purpose-bred mice, rats, and birds are not covered under the Animal Welfare Act and therefore are not reported. If they were, mice would likley be the most commonly used warm-blooded species in experiments that cause pain and/or distress.

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Why is not much attention paid to distress not caused by pain?

Unfortunately, the regulations of the Animal Welfare Act include a definition of “painful procedure” but not of “distress” or “distressful procedure.” In 2000, the U.S. Department of Agriculture called on the public and the research community to comment on possible adoption of a definition of distress and to change the current pain and distress categorization system used by researchers to report to the USDA.

To date, the USDA has not followed through on this proposal. The HSUS believes that the lack of a regulatory definition of “distress” contributes to the lack of attention to this issue and that regulatory change would prompt increased attention.

In February of 2004, the HSUS convened a group of experts for a Workshop on the Operational Definition of Distress. The summary of the workshop was published in Lab Animal in September of 2006. We have urged the USDA to adopt the proposed description of distress, with supporting examples.

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What does the public say about pain and distress and animal research?

Opinion polls demonstrate that public support for animal research drastically declines when the animals experience pain and distress—even if there is the potential for human benefit.

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