Adopting Research Dogs and Cats: Shame on Who?

Plus a checklist for assessing your program

New laws on adoption of research animals have been ratified by nearly a dozen US States, with more pending. In large part, the measures require due consideration by research programs of adoption of dogs and cats once research is complete.  So far, they do not include reporting requirements or punitive actions for failing to meet these requirements, making them fairly benign and paternalistic.  Research isn’t being hampered by this legislation—yet (though if new legislation is proposed in your state and you notice mandatory requirements that increase your burden without improving the outcome for research animals, you should contact your state legislators). So the more immediate question is, do these new laws do what they claim to do? Do they “save animals” from euthanasia, as some proponents are claiming? Or do they not really add much to the practices already used by many animal research programs?

There are a lot of opinions swirling around about the benefit, or detriment, of these laws. The Beagle Freedom project praises these fairly benign measures as a big win and leverages the platform to vilify animal research as perverse. Legislators supporting the measures claim to speak for these animals’ dignity and sacrifice, and how they deserve a fair chance for a good and longer life—decent points, but too often made implying dogs and cats are used mostly in product testing rather than lifesaving biomedical research.  Meanwhile, research advocates like the National Association for Biomedical Research, fearing the slippery slope, hold the line by criticizing the measures as unnecessary, anti-research, and costly.

Certainly, we can’t deny that the legislation got our (the research community’s) attention. David Favre, animal law expert, is quoted by NBC News saying, “I actually think they’re quite effective. These science institutions are large and sophisticated and hyper-aware of public relations and don’t want to be shamed when animal welfare groups expose them for killing all of these animals, and it’s not going to hurt [the institutions] to take the high ground. These [laws] don’t curb their research, they just help the dogs, and besides you don’t really want to go and arrest scientists anyway.”

As information consumers with an investment in what’s best for research and the animals used in that research, how do we sort out for ourselves whether this legislation is beneficial or redundant? Although the research community as a whole is adamant that we have already been making efforts to include considerations for adoption of research animals, I think we are also acutely aware of the spotlight of potential shame if our programs are found to be lacking in this area. These laws, therefore, have urged a hard, and maybe beneficial, reexamination of the quality of our programs. What might we take from these laws even if we think ‘we’ve been doing this all along’?

At the 2019 IACUC Conference, a session titled “Adopting/Retiring Research Animals – Response to Adoption-directed Legislation” was moderated by Lyndon Goodly (University of Illinois Urbana), Eric Hutchinson (Johns Hopkins University), and Carolyn Allen (AbbVie). In the session, the presenters cited a 2017 ACLAM poll that showed that 75% of the research institutions who responded had adoption programs. Maybe the other 25% only do research that requires animals be euthanized? But maybe this statistic is a sign that we could also do better to ensure we have strong adoption programs for research animals.

If you feel that now is the time to reexamine your adoption policy, I’d like to suggest the following checklist of items to consider. For starters, see the ACLAM position statement on Adoption of Research Animals. Additionally:

  • Abide your state and local laws.
  • If you’re using an outside placement group, be sure to review your options carefully. For example, Homes for Animal Heroes, which promotes humane research, is a much better choice than the Beagle Freedom Project, which characterizes animal research as cruel and has been criticized for using deceptive and inconsistent homing practices. Rescue farms are very popular, and a decent option, although they should be vetted carefully, too. Sanctuaries of nonhuman primates are plentiful now but super expensive (at $20K+ per animal).
  • Ensure that your attending veterinarian is approving adoptees, and maybe others like the IACUC or IO should, too.
  • Which species? Beyond cats and dogs, many animals can be rehomed, from mice to primates.
  • Genetically Modified Animals might be OK to adopt out. Don’t exclude them as a rule but do follow applicable regs.
  • Rethink your eligibility for animals. With the idea of rescue animals comes a tolerance for less-than-perfect animals. Johns Hopkins, for example, adopts out one-eyed cats.
  • Are your adoptees prepared to be pets? Are they socialized to people? Potty-trained? This may require the establishment of an institutional program to ready your animals.
  • Evaluate adopters, too. Not everyone can manage a rescue animal (by the way, we should get comfortable with the term ‘rescue animal.’ It’s a frequently used term). The best programs will train adopters to help ensure successful rehoming.
  • Approach adoption with the goal that each animal is adopted out permanently, but be prepared for the unavoidable fact that once you’re adopting out large numbers of animals, a tiny fraction may return. Your institution should be ready to handle these returns, or have a deal with a reputable third-party for returns.
  • Provide a health history. Explain to adopters about any health issues that may crop up, including those from prior research. And clarify again, any future health problems are for the adopter to handle.

Finally, think hard about costs. There are a lot of hidden ones here: holding, transport, vaccination, spay/neuter (yes, you should vaccinate and spay/neuter at your cost), veterinary review, coordination with adopter/third-party, vetting of adoptees, training adoptees, all the documentation, and probably more. Nearly none of this is covered by grant funding so you’ll want to budget for it accordingly.

David J. Lyons, PhD, is Director of the Wake Forest Animal Welfare Program, Deputy Research Integrity Officer, and the Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) Coordinator for the School of Medicine.  He received a BS from Penn State University and a PhD in Behavioral Neuroscience from Boston University, and started his career as a researcher at Wake Forest School of Medicine investigating the neurobiology of substance abuse. He shifted to school administration at the Wake Forest in 2001, where he remains today.  He is Wake Forest’s first full-time director for the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, where he coauthored the training tool, An IACUC member’s Guide to Animal Facility Inspections, housed at the NIH’s, Office of Research Integrity. In addition, he directs graduate courses on Scientific Integrity and Professionalism at the Graduate School in support of the RCR program.

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