The US government has decided to continue controversial experiments on dogs, despite critics in congress and elsewhere attacking the experiments as cruel and unnecessary.
The department for veterans affairs (VA) has approved the continuation of the testing, which it says will help doctors find new ways to treat wounded soldiers, according to USA Today
Researchers running the experiments will remove sections of the dogs’ brains that control breathing, sever spinal cords to test cough reflexes and implant pacemakers before triggering abnormal heart rhythms. All the dogs involved will ultimately be euthanized.
But controversy is brewing over how exactly the vivisections were approved. When the testing was first exposed by an anti-animal testing group last year – White Coat Waste Project – congress passed a law prohibiting the VA department from conducting them without its secretary’s direct approval.
VA spokesman Curt Cashour said that the former VA secretary David Shulkin signed off on continuing the experiments on the day he was fired by Donald Trump in March.
But Shulkin, who lost his job amid allegations he had misspent taxpayer funds on a trip to Europe his wife took in 2017, told the newspaper he had never been asked to restart the dog tests.
Documents are currently showing the VA is currently carrying out nine experiments on dogs at various facilities. In Cleveland, tests involve using electrodes on dogs’ spinal cords to measure cough reflexes before and after severing the cords.
In Richmond, Virginia, experiments include implanting pacemakers in dogs, then inducing abnormal heart rhythms and running the animals on treadmills to test cardiac function before euthanizing them by injection or draining their blood.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie is publicly backing the value of canine medical testing at his department, saying the practice could provide potential breakthroughs in treatments for spinal cord injuries and other challenges facing veterans.
“We have an opportunity to change the lives of men and women who have been terribly hurt,” Wilkie said in comments at the National Press Club last week. “And until somebody tells me that research does not help in that outcome, then I will continue it.”
One of the lawmakers who is trying to pass a bill which would ban the testing, Democrat Dina Titus, said: “It’s not economically sound, they could be looking at new technologies, and morally people just don’t support testing on puppies.”
But a review launched by Shulkin before he was fired – on the medical necessity for using canines – has found that dogs are “the only viable model” for the specific experiments, the VA spokesman said.
Nevertheless, the department has also commissioned the National Academy of Sciences to spend $1.3 million to run another study investigating if dogs are really needed for this research.
Justin Goodman, the vice president of advocacy and public policy for the White Coat Waste Project, said it was disconcerting that “disconcerting that Secretary Wilkie was brought in to clean up the VA, and yet he is doubling down on a program that has continued to fail veterans, taxpayers and dogs”
Veterans’ groups are divided on whether the experiments should continue. The founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America organisation said that as long as the research was done “ethically” it could lead to medical breakthroughs.
But Paralyzed Veterans of America, which was initially in favor of the VA dog testing, has now changed its mind and said it did not oppose efforts to stop the experiments.
The VA, which said that more than 99 per cent of its animal testing involved rats or mice, insisted that dogs remained a necessary part of its research.
But when asked what medical progress had come about because of dog testing, the agency’s spokesman could only point to breakthroughs which date back to the 1960s.