In-Depth: Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV) reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to put an end to the Dept. of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) practice of performing painful and distressing experiments on dogs:
“It’s time to end dog testing at the VA once and for all. There are proven alternatives to this unnecessary testing that inflicts severe pain on puppies and dogs while producing no discernible medical advances. I’m grateful for the support of Congressman Mast and the many animal welfare and veterans’ organizations that are helping advance this legislation to put an end to this barbaric practice.”
Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL), an original cosponsor of this bill who lost his legs while serving in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, adds:
“While I was recovering from my injuries, I saw firsthand the important role that dogs play in helping veterans recover from war’s physical and psychological tolls. For too long, the VA has gotten away with conducting these harmful—sometimes fatal—experiments on dogs. These tests are abusive, waste taxpayer dollars and must be stopped.”
Sherman Gillums Jr., Chief Advocacy Officer at American Veterans, expresses his organization’s support for this bill:
“The PUPPERS Act is more than a measure that would end the senseless abuse of canines in VA research labs. It would also put an end to the empty promises that veterans with chronic and serious medical conditions, like heart disease, cancer, and spinal cord injury, have relied on for far too long. At some point, scientific research needs to deliver results that make it worth the costs. In the case of VA canine research, there were no real results for decades. Therefore, there should be no more costs — especially when they involve inflicting pain on the same animals that families keep as pets and police officers rely on to find bombs and drugs. Most importantly to me, combat-wounded veterans use these same animals to replace lost function and cope with invisible injuries. The PUPPERS Act embodies the conscience of our society, and it’s time to let conscience guide our actions by passing this important bill.”
Some disabled veterans, along with former VA Secretary David Shulkin, worry that ending dog experiments at the VA will prevent the discovery of life-saving treatments for humans. In a September 2017 USA Today op-ed, then-Secretary Shulkin wrote:
“At the Department of Veterans Affairs, part of our mission is to push the envelope constantly in search of medical advancements that will help improve the lives of disabled veterans. But our ability to accomplish that part of our mission stands at risk as a result of [the PUPPERS Act, which] would eliminate a key component of VA’s research efforts: our canine research program. If this legislation passes... it would stop potential VA canine research-related medical advancements that offer seriously disabled veterans the hope of a better future. Canine research works because of the distinct physical and biological characteristics humans and dogs share that other species do not. For example, the electrical properties of the dog heart are very similar to those of the human heart — and unlike those of rats or mice. This, together with dogs being similar in size to humans, is what made it possible for VA researchers to develop the implantable cardiac pacemaker, which millions of people today depend on. More recently, VA canine research has resulted in the first FDA approval of an artificial pancreas — a significant breakthrough that will make real differences in veterans’ lives… The worldwide medical and scientific community agrees that canine research is necessary, and actually represents the only viable option for developing and testing new treatments for some medical problems. That’s why VA’s canine research program enjoys the strong support of Veterans groups such as Paralyzed Veterans of America, the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans... Shutting down VA’s animal research programs would deny some of our most vulnerable veterans hope for new and potentially life-changing treatments. It’s important to note that VA’s animal research programs are some the safest and most humane in the world. Not only does the department meet the ethical and legal requirements for animal research, we exceed them… Reducing unnecessary animal research is a noble goal. But an even nobler one is helping veterans and other Americans who are waiting for medical research — including some studies involving dogs and other animals — to find cures and better treatments to pressing health problems that once again can only be discovered through canine research.”
However, after being fired from his position in March 2018 over a range of issues, including allegations of misuse of taxpayer funds and waste at the VA, Shulkin claimed that he’d always been opposed to canine research by the VA. In a November 2018 tweet, Shulkin condemned planned canine research at the VA and claimed that “As #SecVA and to this day-I remain opposed towards any new #dog research.”
Current VA Secretary Robert Wilkie supports canine testing, as he believes it could lead to breakthroughs in medical treatments for veterans. The VA’s Chief Veterinary Medical Officer, Michael Fallon, also supports canine testing, arguing that “there are many, many medical problems that can only be addressed with animal research and it is not true that computer models can replace animal research.” The American Heart Association (AHA), which funds some of the VA’s canine testing, adds that animal research has been key to “virtually every major medical advance of the past century.”
Rep. Brat disagrees with these assessments. He says, “The reports I read about were almost on the scale of torture. I think there are probably alternative paths that will lead to the same breakthroughs [without canine testing].” According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), animal testing often fails to translate to humans, as “92 percent of [drugs] that are successful for animals fail in human trials.”
This bill has 88 bipartisan cosponsors, including 69 Democrats and 19 Republicans, in the 116th Congress. Last Congress, then-Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) introduced this bill with the support of 101 bipartisan cosponsors and it didn’t receive a committee vote, thanks in large part to the VA’s efforts to kill it.
AMVETS, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the American Humane Association, and the White Coat Waste Project support this bill.
Of Note: In 2018, President Trump signed a FY 2018 government funding bill that defunded dog experimentation at the VA, save for rare instances with Secretary-level approval. As a result of this and advocates’ campaigning to end VA testing on dogs, existing dog testing at the VA has already been cut by around 75%, and several projects were cancelled before they began. All told, the White Coat Waste Project reports, “no new dog experiments have been approved since July 2017, and only a few remain in Richmond and Cleveland.”
Care2, a website that calls itself “the world’s largest community for good,” reports on some of the VA’s more disturbing experiments:
“Dogs have undergone surgeries that forced them to have heart attacks or vomit repeatedly. Portions of their brains have been removed to test the neurons that control their breathing. After enduring this torture, the dogs are euthanized.”
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) are currently conducting an independent formal review of the VA’s K-9 research program in order to determine whether dogs are mistreated in or necessary to the VA’s experiments. The NASEM study is expected to be complete in mid-2020. In February 2019, 11 members of Congress, led by Reps. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Lee Zeldin (R-NY) wrote to the VA to request that it suspend dog experiments until the NASEM study is complete.
Summary by Lorelei Yang
(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / filadendron)