How Much Pain Do Animals Experience in Animal Research?
Most animals experience only minimal pain or brief discomfort when they are used in research. According to the 1988 Animal Welfare Enforcement Report by the Department of Agriculture, about 94 percent of all laboratory animals reported are not exposed to painful procedures or are given drugs to relieve any pain caused by a procedure.30 The remaining 6 percent of animals are exposed to painful procedures because to relieve them of the pain would defeat the purpose of the experiment. Even in these cases, however, the pain is usually neither severe nor long-lasting.
A small fraction of animals do experience acute or prolonged pain during experiments. But the researchers who conduct these experiments and the institutional committees that oversee them believe that this pain is justified by the magnitude of the problem the experiments are designed to solve. An estimated 85 million Americans suffer from chronic pain caused by arthritis, back disorders, injuries, cancer, headaches, or other conditions. The annual economic costs in terms of work days lost and health care expenditures from chronic pain run into the tens of billions of dollars.31 Without research on a relatively small number of laboratory animals, there is little hope that continued progress can be made in alleviating this widespread human suffering.
The statistics concerning pain in laboratory animals confirm a general conviction of the research community. Animal activists are wrong when they accuse researchers of inflicting needless pain on experimental animals. Researchers strive to cause animals either no pain or no more pain than is absolutely necessary. When a rare instance of abuse does arise, researchers are condemned by their colleagues, are subject to sanctions by the research community, and generally lose their support for further research.
The sudden appearance of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in the early 1980s demonstrates both the unpredictability of future health needs and the essential role of animals in responding to those needs. Within a few years of its appearance, researchers knew that AIDS was caused by a virus, now known as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and tests had been devised to detect antibodies to the virus in the blood. Progress would not have been nearly as rapid without the previous two decades of animal research, in which naturally-occurring viruses similar to HIV were studied in a variety of laboratory, pet, and farm animals. Chimpanzees are the only species besides humans that can be infected with HIV, but infected chimps do not develop symptoms of AIDS. However, rhesus monkeys do get a disease very similar to AIDS that is caused by a similar virus, known as simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV). Thus, rhesus monkeys provide a model in which to study the prevention and treatment of AIDS in humans.
Researchers have already developed a vaccine that protects monkeys from given strains of SIV, opening up the possibility that similar vaccines can be developed for humans. In addition, potential vaccines and treatments for AIDS are tested in monkeys and other animals to ensure their efficacy and safety for human use. This was the process, for example, that led to the use of AZT to treat AIDS.