Alternatives to Animal Testing: Or, Alternatives to the Use of Animals in Research

FAQ – Animal Testing and Alternatives to Animal Testing

As one would imagine, in today’s technologically advanced world, in which science has made monstrous steps in many promising directions, that many alternatives would exist to animal testing. This assumption is absolutely true. Many alternatives exist to the use of live animals in research (vivisection). Here are some alternatives to animals currently used:

  • “Synthetic skin,” called Corrositex
  • Computer modeling
  • Improved statistical design
  • The Murine Local Lymph Node Assay (LLNA)

Providing proof for this truth is that one of the top educational institutions in the world – Johns Hopkins – has a center devoted entirely to developing and promoting alternatives to animal testing – The Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing. It also managers Altweb, an on-line resource to “…serve as a gateway to alternatives news, information, and resources on the Internet and beyond [regarding alternatives to animal testing].”

More information from these resources is found below.

Another resource that exists to prove the viability and relevance of using non-animal testing methods is Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments (FRAME). Located in England , FRAME seeks to promote a moderate, but nonetheless determined, approach, by encouraging a realistic consideration of the ethical and scientific issues involved and the widest possible adoption of the Three Rs.

R efinement: minimize suffering and distress

R eduction: minimize number of animals used

R eplacement: avoid the use of living animals


FAQs on Animal Testing and Alternatives to Animal Testing


How are laboratory animals used?

: Laboratory animals most commonly are used in three main areas: biomedical research, product safety testing, and education. Biomedical researchers use animals in their efforts to understand the workings of the body and the processes of disease and health, and to develop new vaccines and treatments for various diseases. This sort of research isn’t solely for the benefit of human health; it is aimed at developing new veterinary techniques as well.

Industry uses animals to test the safety and effectiveness of a wide range of consumer products, including drugs, cosmetics, household cleaning products, pesticides, industrial chemicals, and more.

Educators–from elementary school all the way up through graduate programs–use animals as part of the teaching process. Educational uses include dissecting earthworms or frogs in biology class, as well as advanced training in surgical techniques for veterinary and medical students.

Scientists also study animals to learn more about a given species, its biology and behavior. They may study animals as models of psychological or social behaviors. They may learn from the special skills or abilities of an animal as well. For example, Navy researchers have studied dolphin echolocation–their built-in biological sonar system–to improve the human-made sonar systems used on board ships.

In all these cases, if the animals are kept in captivity, or if they are subjected to pain or distress that is not a natural part of their environment, we are interested in finding alternative approaches to help replace the use of animals, reduce the number of animals used, or lessen any pain or distress suffered by the animals.

What does “alternatives to animal testing” mean?

: Alternative methods fall into three broad categories. These are called the 3 Rs: Replacement, Reduction, and Refinement. Replacement is what most people think of when you say “alternatives to animal testing”: the animals are replaced, either by methods that don’t involve animals at all (absolute replacement) or by those that use only the cells or tissues of animals (relative replacement). Many replacement alternatives involve these in vitro (“in glass”) techniques, where the studies are done with cells or tissues in culture. If the cells come from human beings, it’s absolute replacement. If they come from animals, it’s relative replacement–the method doesn’t require a living animal in the laboratory, but often the cells or tissues come from animals killed for that purpose.

Unfortunately, replacement isn’t always an option. Some important kinds of testing just can’t be done without animals, at least at this time. In these cases, researchers still can work to reduce the number of animals used in a given study. With careful experimental design and sophisticated statistical techniques, it is often possible to use far fewer animals and still get valid results.

Finally, for those animals that do undergo testing, scientists may refine their methods to lessen or eliminate pain, distress, or suffering and to make the animals more comfortable.

British researchers W. Russell and R. Burch formulated this notion of the 3 Rs in their 1959 book The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique, which argues that humane science is also the best science.

What kinds of alternatives are there?

One example of a replacement alternative is no longer considered an alternative–it has become the norm. Not too many years ago, if a woman wanted to find out if she was pregnant, she’d have to get a laboratory test that involved killing a rabbit. Now, she can buy a small kit over-the-counter that tests her urine for certain chemicals–the rabbits have been replaced.

Regulatory agencies in the United States and in Europe recently approved another sort of replacement test. This involves the use of a “synthetic skin,” called Corrositex, which can be used in place of animals to test chemicals for skin corrositivity–that is, to see whether a substance will corrode or burn the skin.

Computer modeling

Improved statistical design

The Murine Local Lymph Node Assay (LLNA)

Computer modeling also can replace certain kinds of animal use, particularly in education. High school biology classes, for example, might practice dissection on a computer model rather than on real, live frogs. Even medical schools are beginning to develop “virtual reality” devices for students to practice on. You can find an example of a “Virtual Frog Dissection Kit”. Plastic models and realistic manikins also can take the place of live animals for some educational purposes.

People can replace animals in some kinds of research. Skin sensitivity testing of cosmetics increasingly draws on human volunteers. Human clinical studies and epidemiological studies (looking at the occurrence and distribution of diseases in various populations of people) can reveal a great deal about the processes of health and disease.

Improved statistical design represents one form of reduction alternative. With sophisticated, low cost statistical packages available for the computer these days, investigators can get the most out of the data generated by each animal they use and so need fewer animals altogether.

Another type of reduction method involves sharing research animals. If one researcher is studying rat brain tissue, for example, when it comes time to kill the rat, he may allow other researchers to use the kidneys, liver, or other parts of the animal for their own studies. Re-designing studies to collect as much information as possible from the same set of animals can also reduce animal usage. This kind of sharing can be particularly effective in reducing the number of animals used within a given institution.

The Murine Local Lymph Node Assay (LLNA), another newly accepted test used in product safety assessment, also is an example of a reduction alternative. This test, which determines the potential of chemicals to cause allergic skin reactions, requires use far fewer animals than the old method.

Refinement covers anything that serves to reduce the animals’ pain and distress or to enhance their well-being. These alternatives may come in a great variety of forms. Giving an animal appropriate medication for pain is one example of a refinement alternative. The LLNA, mentioned above, serves as an example of refinement as well as reduction, because it is less painful than the previous method.

Techniques that are less invasive to the animal also may constitute refinement. For example, researchers can use such modern medical technologies as ultrasound or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to look at what is happening inside an animal without cutting into it.

Refinement also includes such things as giving animals bigger cages, offering them appropriate toys to play with so they won’t get bored, and allowing them to have companions of their own kind (if that is a natural condition for the species).

The boundaries between these categories of alternatives aren’t always clear-cut. For example, some alternative methods involve using lower organisms in place of species higher on the evolutionary scale. Such studies may use plants, microorganisms, invertebrate animals, or even early-stage vertebrates (e.g., chicken eggs) rather than vertebrate animals. Similarly, using frogs instead of mammals, or mice instead non-human primates, also may be considered alternative methods. However, depending on the nature of the study and the particular organisms involved–and on one’s perspective regarding “lower” versus “higher” animals–such alternative methods may be viewed variously as replacement, reduction, or refinement techniques.

For more examples of alternative methods, see the Fund for Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments (FRAME) web site and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Also check the “Alternative Methodologies” chapter of the Animal Welfare Information Center (AWIC) book, Essentials for Animal Research: A Primer for Research Personnel.

Why do some scientists say there are no alternatives to animal testing?

: In general, they are thinking only of replacement alternatives. Many scientists feel that animal testing cannot be replaced completely by non-animal methods, particularly in biomedical research. They say we simply do not yet understand the complexities of the body well enough to be able to design suitable non-animal alternatives. But if you talk about the 3Rs–reduction and refinement, as well as replacement–most would agree that alternatives are possible.

What can I do if I am opposed to dissecting animals at school?

: Some countries and several states in the U.S. have laws or regulations that allow students to choose alternatives to dissection without penalty. Some schools have similar policies. Check to see what the policies are in your area.

A number of organizations offer support and materials to students who object to dissection or who wish to establish a student choice policy. These include the Humane Society of the United States and InterNICHE

What kinds of alternatives are there for the classroom?

: A variety of alternatives to dissection are available, including computer simulations, 3-D models, films, and interactive videos. Even medical schools are beginning to develop “virtual reality” devices for students to practice on.

What are some arguments against testing on animals?

: Arguments against animal testing may question the morality, the necessity, or the validity of these studies–that is, whether we have the right to perform such tests, whether we need such tests, and whether the tests actually tell us anything useful.

Animal rights advocates argue that sentient animals have a right to their own life; they are not ours to do with as we please. In its broadest form, this argues against using animals or animal products in any way–that means maintaining a vegetarian diet, not wearing leather or fur, and, at its most extreme, not even keeping animals as pets.

A more moderate animal protection or animal welfare viewpoint is concerned more with our responsibility toward animals, that we have a moral obligation not to cause them unnecessary pain and distress. This stance does not necessarily argue against all animal testing.

Arguments against the need for animal testing may take at least a couple of forms. Some may consider the object of the testing to be trivial. Is it worth blinding rabbits so we can have a new kind of mascara? Another argument is that we don’t need to use animals–we can use non-animal alternatives or computer simulations or test on human volunteers.

Another form of objection argues that we can’t rely on the results of animal tests anyway. Humans are different from other animals, so the results of animal testing may not apply to us. Just because one species reacts to a given drug or chemical in a particular way doesn’t necessarily mean another species will respond the same way. Furthermore, the argument goes, animals kept in unnatural conditions, or animals in pain or distress, aren’t going to give accurate or consistent results anyway.

Altweb doesn’t object to animal testing per se; rather, we advocate the development and use of alternative methods whenever possible. By this we mean methods that reduce animal use or refine methods to make them less painful or stressful to the animal, as well as replacement methods. We do not believe that all animal use can be replaced with non-animal alternatives in the immediate future. Our web site exists to speed the development and use of new alternative methods by providing a clearinghouse of information and resources to scientists, industry, and the public.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) web site provides some statistics on pain and distress in laboratory animals.

What are the benefits to people from animal testing? What discoveries have been made using animals?

: Countless medical treatments, techniques, and technologies have come about, at least in part, through animal experimentation. The development of immunization against such diseases as polio, diphtheria, mumps, measles, rubella, pertussis, and hepatitis all involved research on animals, as did the discovery of insulin and the study of diabetes. Animal research also has played a part in the development of organ transplantation, hip replacement, chemotherapy, cardiac pacemakers, coronary bypass surgery, ongoing efforts to understand and treat AIDS and Alzheimer’s disease, and more.

Not everyone agrees, however, on the extent to which animal research was essential to all these discoveries, nor the extent to which is it necessary for future medical progress. The American Anti-Vivisectionist Society, for example, contends that “results derived from animal experiments have had a very minimal effect on the dramatic rise in life expectancy in the 20th century.”

The organizations represented by Altweb, while accepting the value of animal research, work to promote the development and use of alternative methods whenever possible.

Are there any benefits to animals?

: Animal research has played a role in many advances in veterinary medicine, including the development of vaccines for rabies, parvovirus, and distemper. Various devices and treatments developed through animal research–such as pacemakers, hip replacement, diabetes treatments, dental care, and chemotherapy–are used in veterinary as well as human medicine. Some animal research is aimed at developing alternatives to animal use, so that fewer animals will be needed in the future.

Not all research is conducted on laboratory animals. Pet owners looking for the best or newest treatment for their ailing dog or cat may agree to take part in a clinical study–similar to the human clinical trials that test the effectiveness of different drugs or treatment methods on people with pre-existing conditions or diseases.

Research on such matters as nutrition, housing requirements, or social behavior can help improve living conditions for captive and domestic animals. Some kinds of animal research may contribute to habitat restoration and conservation efforts for wild animals.

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