NIH has submitted a plan to the Senate Appropriations Committee to phase out the use by extramural researchers of dogs and cats purchased from Class B dealers by 2015. “Class B” is a USDA designation for individuals who buy, sell, or transport animals they did not breed and raise themselves. About a dozen Class B dealers sell dogs and cats for research, and some of these individuals have generated controversy because of repeated failures to provide adequate care for animals and, in some cases, selling lost or stolen pets to research labs.
NIH estimates that extramural grantees currently purchase about 1,000 dogs each year from Class B dealers, primarily for pre-clinical cardiovascular studies. The number of cats purchased from Class B dealers is not known. Some Members of Congress have been so incensed by the egregious animal cruelty committed by certain Class B dealers that on several occasions in the past few years, Congress was on the verge of legislating an outright ban on Class B dealer sales of dogs and cats for research. However, that effort was fueled in part by claims from animal rights groups that there was no need for Class B dealers in the first place. The APS played a critical role in rallying objections to such a ban, calling instead for more resources to enforce the provisions of the Animal Welfare Act intended to ensure that animals are obtained legally and treated humanely. The APS argued that Class B dealers who violate the law should be punished, but those who obey the law represented an important source of animals because Class A dealers, who breed dogs for research, could not provide enough animals with the traits needed for certain kinds of cardiovascular studies. In 2007, Congress called upon NIH to commission an independent inquiry to resolve questions surrounding both the scientific and humane issues surrounding Class B dealer dogs and cats, and in 2008, the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research (ILAR) of the National Academy of Sciences undertook this study.
In May 2009, the findings of the ILAR study were announced. The panel of experts concluded that the non-purpose bred dogs and cats supplied by Class B dealers continue to play an important role in specific areas of medical research. However, the experts also concluded that the USDA cannot guarantee an acceptable level of care for these animals under existing law. The panel provided a list of other potential sources of dogs and cats with comparable random source characteristics, and recommended that NIH grantees replace the dogs and cats they currently buy from Class B dealers with animals from these other suppliers.
In August 2009, the APS Animal Care and Experimentation (ACE) Committee convened a working group to review the ILAR panel’s findings and recommendations. Taking into account the specific traits needed in physiological research, the working group forwarded to the NIH suggestions for implementing the ILAR recommendations. The ACE Committee also recommended a new APS position statement on Random Source Dogs and Cats in Medical Research, which Council adopted in October, 2009. The position statement noted that while the numbers of dogs and cats needed in biomedical research has decreased in recent years, “these animals remain critical for health research to alleviate serious and life-threatening conditions that afflict humans and animals.” Moreover, although the majority of dogs and cats are bred for research, there is also some need for non-purpose bred or random source dogs and cats because they exhibit traits that are difficult to replicate in purpose-bred animals, such as advanced age, pre-existing health conditions, or previous exposure to viruses, allergens, or parasites. The APS position statement called upon the NIH to make immediate efforts to develop new suppliers so that translational research that depends upon these animals can continue without disruption. It was in light of these requirements that APS evaluated NIH’s implementation plan.
NIH intends to issue contracts to USDA licensed Class A dealers to raise mature, large, socialized dogs needed for translational research in cardiovascular disease and certain other areas. The contracts will enable the breeders to develop the capacity to raise dogs suitable for translational cardiovascular research. Once the contracts terminate, the breeders should be able to continue supplying the animals in response to demand from the research community. It is anticipated that there will be a sharp increase in cost, which will also have to be addressed for this plan to succeed without disrupting research.
The APS has communicated its support to Congress because the NIH plan has the potential to resolve a long-running controversy in a way that permits important areas of translational research to proceed. By providing short-term support to Class A breeders, NIH can ensure the continued availability of scientifically appropriate animals that have been given the care they deserve. APS members who currently purchase Class B dogs for cardiovascular research should be prepared to make a transition to purpose-bred dogs within the next few years. These animals are likely to cost significantly more than those from Class B dealers. However, since it is in the interest of all parties to resolve this controversy, it is reasonable to expect that Congress and the NIH will provide the necessary supplemental funds.