Advancing Animal Welfare Standards in Labs Isn’t the Answer

Nathan Herschler, April 11, 2019

Why advocating for high welfare animal care in research facilities isn’t an effective strategy.

The vast majority of animal research and testing involves mice, rats, and fish – species that are exempt from protection under the Animal Welfare Act. There are probably hundreds of millions of individual animals from these species that are used in, bred for, or kept waiting for use in research every year.

There are some welfare protections for these animals in certain cases, although we believe those protections are wildly inadequate. Animals used in NIH funded research are covered by the “PHS Policy,” which does provide some care standards. Additionally, a nonprofit organization called AAALAC International provides accreditation to research institutions that meet their standards for animal care.

There is far too much evidence showing that the standard care practices for these animals are not worth the paper they’re written on. Mice, Rats, and Fish are:

  • Kept in overcrowded cages
  • Are not provided “natural” habitats or enrichment
  • Are sometimes cannibalized by their co-habitants

While it’s possible that advocating for higher welfare standards may result in some of these animals going from net negative lives, or put another way, lives filled with misery and suffering to net positive lives. There are huge ethical and logistical weaknesses associated with this tactical approach to advocacy.

Many animals are specifically bred by researchers to suffer.

In many cases animals are bred to suffer, like the dogs deliberately bred to develop muscular dystrophy. In these instances, there is no way to create net positive lives for the impacted animals.

In many Category D and Category E experiments (the most painful kind of testing), the suffering experienced by the animals can’t be outweighed by positive enhancements to their housing standards. These animals often suffer tremendously for days or weeks on end before being euthanized and have net negative lives as a result.

Appropriate care and housing costs too much.

It would be logistically impossible to provide ethologically appropriate housing for hundreds of millions of animals. Four years ago, we petitioned the USDA to issue new regulations requiring ethologically appropriate housing for primates.  We don’t believe that USDA will be able to do so without jeopardizing the entire economic model of primate research in the United States.

Invest in testing models that don’t use animals.

Most fundamentally, the human-controlled systems necessary for keeping animals in research and testing are wrong, intrinsically. Even if you, as a consequentialist, believe that animal research is justified because it has benefited human health through the development of treatments in the past, you must now address the counterfactual of investment in human-relevant alternatives to animal research and testing in addition to the incredibly high failure rate of bringing new drugs to market. Why would any person think it’s effective to continue to throw sentient, feeling animals at an intractable human health problem when there are other options available?

Where do we go from here?

With your help, we can come up with more research questions, and with more dollars to fund this research, more answers that will result in the most effective and efficient ways to save animals. Our research fundraising goal is $15,000. If you can help us reach this goal please contact us at We’d love to share more of our thinking for this and similar projects in 2019.