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The Use of Pound Animals in Biomedical Research

Definitions | Issues | Research | Data | Regulation | Cosequences

Definition of Terms

In any discussion of the use of pound animals in research and education, certain terms are used whose precise meaning may be unfamiliar to many members of the public. Those terms are defined below:

Pound -A facility established by local ordinance in which stray, abandoned and lost animals are held, or "impounded" for a period of time. The purpose of impoundment is to allow time for owners to claim lost pets or to find new homes for the animals. Animals neither claimed nor adopted at the end of this period are put to death.

Shelter -A facility established and maintained by a private group to house abandoned animals. Like pounds, most shelters must put to death animals that remain unadopted after a period of time. In some locales, shelters also serve as pounds, receiving a fee for service from the municipal government for holding stray or lost animals.

Random-Source Animal -A term used by scientists and those who keep records of animal acquisition to refer to any animal that has not been bred specifically for research. All pound animals are considered to be random-source animals.

Purpose-Bred Animal -Any animal bred and reared specifically for research purposes by a licensed animal breeder.

Conditioning -A term that denotes a wide variety of veterinary procedures that may be performed on a random-source animal prior to its inclusion in a scientific study. Conditioning may simply involve vaccinating an animal against a single disease and holding it for observation to ensure it is healthy enough for a short-term experiment. If the animal is needed for a longer term project, conditioning may be more extensive. It may include quarantine of the animal for up to six weeks, and treatment and prevention of disease including a range of vaccinations (against rabies, distemper, etc.), antibiotic therapy and frequent monitoring tests, as well as a special nutritional regimen.

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Some research on animals is essential to progress in biomedical science. For many types of investigations, studies on animals offer the best hope, short of experiments on humans themselves, for finding the cause, treatment, cure and prevention of disease. Without research, these diseases will continue to inflict pain, disability and death on millions of people and animals each year.

Each year a small percentage of unwanted animals, which would otherwise be destroyed in pounds and animal shelters in Michigan, are released to universities, hospitals and other research institutions for use in essential bio- medical research and for veterinary and medical education. Much misinformation surrounds this practice, resulting in widespread public confusion about why and how the biomedical research community uses pound animals.

The following information is intended to present the facts behind the issue and to explain the need for pound animals in biomedical research and education.

Although pound dogs and cats comprise only a tiny percentage of all animals used in biomedical research and education programs in Michigan and throughout the United States, they are critically important to those programs for both scientific and economic reasons. Less than 2 percent of the more than 10 million unwanted animals in the United States and 500,000 in Michigan that are otherwise put to death in pounds and shelters each year, are released for research. These unwanted animals play a vital role in studies on health problems such as heart and kidney disease, brain injury, stroke, blindness and deafness, and for the education of future veterinarians and physicians.

The pound animals used for research and education are unwanted animals whose owners have not claimed them or for which adoptive homes cannot be found. Research and educational institutions acquire them through licensed dealers or directly from the pounds. Dogs and cats from pounds are excellent models for many types of biomedical research, particularly those which require animals from a diverse genetic pool. In addition, the cost of acquiring pound animals for study is approximately 80 to 90 percent less than that of using dogs and cats specifically bred for research purposes.

If members of the public understand why and how pound animals are used, it is likely they will support the continuation of responsible research and educational programs that involve pound animals.

Scientific Considerations

Pound animals' genetic makeup makes them excellent models for certain types of research. Generally speaking, pound animals come from a random genetic pool; that is, they have not come from controlled in-breeding. Some research in the area of organ and cell transplantation, for example, requires the use of "randomly outbred" animals. Randomly outbred dogs, the type most commonly found in pounds, have widely divergent genetic backgrounds. Their diverse genetic makeup is analogous to the variations in genetic backgrounds among humans, especially in the U.S., where immigration and intermarriage among ethnic and racial groups has produced what may be termed a randomly outbred population.

Cost Considerations

The cost of a research animal is one of the determining factors in the choice of a research subject. Because of the limited dollars available for biomedical research from both public and private sources, scientists cannot afford to spend more than is absolutely necessary on the type and number of animals used in the research project. If researchers could no longer use pound-source animals, they would have to purchase similar animals from breeders. The resulting increase in the cost of research could retard or halt the progress of research in some vital health areas such as heart disease, simply by pricing it beyond the reach of many research institutions.

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Number of Pound Animals Used

Dogs and cats obtained from pounds for research or education account for less than two percent of the more than 10 million animals left in pounds each year. This amounts to some 138,000 dogs and 50,000 cats. Had they not been purchased by research and teaching institutions, these animals would have died in pounds. Only animals that have not been reclaimed by their owners or have not been adopted are used in research and education.

How Pound Animals are Acquired

Universities and other research institutions in Michigan may purchase animals only from dealers, who must be licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Michigan Department of Agriculture, or they can acquire them directly from the pound.

How Pound Animals are Used in Education

Pound animals are used in the education of future veterinarians in Michigan's veterinary schools, and of future physicians in its medical schools.

Veterinary Schools: Most graduates of Michigan's veterinary school enter small animal practice: that is, the treatment of household pets. Up to 75 percent of all pound animals used in veterinary schools help teach these students surgical skills.

Medical Schools: Few pound animals are used in medical education. Some medical school physiology and pharmacology courses require a small number of animals for experimentation and demonstration. In surgical residency programs, a few pound animals are used in the same manner as described above for veterinary schools.

Areas of Research Where Pound Animals are Used

Pound animals are used for research into the cause, treatment and prevention of disease in humans and animals. Such research includes work in cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, lung disorders, orthopedics, birth defects, hearing loss and blindness.

Most current medical and surgical methods for treating heart and kidney disease have been, and continue to be, developed through research with dogs. Because the cat's nervous system is the closest animal system to the human's, cats are frequently the best animal models for research on the brain and on visual and auditory function and disease. Cats are also essential to promising research into improved treatment for stroke victims. As a part of recent research leading to a vaccine for feline leukemia, cats played a critical role in the identification of the virus believed to cause Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in humans.

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Number of Animals that Die Each Year in Pounds

In the U.S., more than 10 million animals are killed annually in pounds and shelters. In Michigan, the annual figure is about 500,000. Animals are killed if they are not claimed by their owners or if adoptive homes cannot be found, because pounds cannot afford to care for them indefinitely.

Cost of Animal Control

The total annual cost of pet animal control in the U.S. exceeds $500 million. Because a heavy financial burden of animal control rests on state and local government, much of this money, needed to cover such costs as personnel, facilities, food and euthanasia drugs, comes directly from citizens' tax dollars.

Percentage of Pound Animals Turned in By Owners

Estimates vary greatly. According to some estimates, approximately 40 percent of these animals have been delivered to pounds by owners who are unable to keep them. Others indicate that owners turn in up to 80 percent of all pound animals.

Length of Time Animals are Held in Pounds

The minimum holding period for most healthy animals without an identification tag in Michigan is four days. For animals wearing an identification tag the minimum holding period is seven days. This allows the owner of a lost pet time to reclaim it. The maximum time an animal can be kept in a pound is determined by considerations such as available space, daily influx of new animals, the likelihood of adoption, and the facility's own holding policies. In some cases, the maximum holding period may extend to two weeks or more.



Comparison of Costs to the
Researcher of Pound Animals

(Unconditioned and Conditioned) Versus
Conditioned Purpose Bred Animals

Uncondtioned: $60-100 

Conditioned: $200


*Cost of pound animals varies according to locale; range reflects degree of conditioning required.

**Lower figure is based on cost of eight-month-old purpose-bred beagle: higher figure is based on cost of eight-month-old hound.


If research and educational institutions were forced to acquire only purpose-bred animals, their costs would rise as much as 500-1000 percent.


Use of Pound Animals by NIH Grantees

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the principal public source of funding for biomedical research in the U.S., does not specify the origin of animals to be used for the research it funds at universities and other research institutions. NIH does, in fact, fund many projects that use pound animals. According to NIH policy, the decision as to whether or not random-source animals are needed should be made within the context of the project's scientific requirements. The NIH reviews each research proposal for the appropriateness of the animal model to be studied. The number of animals is also reviewed to ensure that the study involves no more animals than are necessary.

Thefts of Pets for Resale to Research

Because universities and research institutions acquire animals directly from pounds or licensed dealers, there is virtually no market for trade in stolen animals for research purposes. A survey of police departments and animal control agencies in the 10 largest U.S. cities, conducted by the Foundation for Biomedical Research*, revealed no reports of thefts of animals for resale to research for education. When a pet animal is stolen, it is usually for resale as a pet, guard or hunting dog, or for illegal gaming activities. Stolen dogs tend to be pure-bred animals, such as German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers or Pit Bull Terriers, which can be sold illegally to private individuals at prices far higher than those for random-source animals used in research or education.

*Foundation for Biomedical Research, 818 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 303 Washington, DC 20006 (202) 457-0654

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States Permitting the Use of Pound Animals

49 States currently allow some form of pound animal use for research and education. Twelve states; Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia; permit the use of animals originating from out-of-state pounds, but do not allow pounds within state borders to release unwanted animals to research and teaching institutions. In October 1986, Massachusetts prohibited the use of any pound-delivered animal for research or educational purposes.


Proper care is defined in Federal law, regulations and guidelines. Some states also have laws governing conduct of research with animals. They set standards and practices for transportation, housing, cleanliness, diet, veterinary care, and use of anesthetics or analgesics.

Animal Welfare Act

The care of animals housed by universities, medical schools, hospitals and research centers is monitored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), under the provisions of the Federal Animal Welfare Act.

USDA representatives make periodic unannounced inspections to ensure compliance with standards for housing, feeding and watering, cleanliness, ventilation and veterinary medical care. The law contains provisions relating to the use of anesthesia for potentially painful procedures and/or postoperative care. It sets penalties for violations, including fines and the closing of a facility.

Public Health Service Animal Welfare Policy

The U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) maintains an Animal Welfare Policy that applies to all institutions that receive funds from the National Institutes of Health for research projects involving animals. Institutions must implement the recommendations in the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.

The guide sets standards for animal care, including housing, cleanliness, husbandry and veterinary care. It includes directives on the appropriate use of anesthetics, analgesics and tranquilizers by the attending veterinarian.

Public Acceptance of Use of Pound Animals in Research and Education

In a public opinion poll conducted by the Survey Research Center, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, 61% of respondents favored the use of unwanted animals from the pound for medical research, 16% were neutral and only 23% were against such use. Similarly, 75% would oppose the passing of a law which would prevent unclaimed pound animals from being used in medical research for the public benefit.

There is no evidence to support the contention of some critics that allowing pounds and shelters to release animals for research discourages people from bringing unwanted animals to the facilities. State and local bans on sale or donation of pound animals for research have produced no significant increase in the number of animals brought in by owners.

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A prohibition on the use of pound animals for research and education would A have numerous far-reaching consequences, including the following:
  • First, there would be a need to breed and rear an additional 138,000 dogs and 50,000 cats each year in the United States solely for this purpose. These would include 10,000 dogs and cats in Michigan, bred for research purposes. At a time when more than 10 million unwanted dogs and cats in the United States and 500,000 dogs and cats in Michigan are killed annually in pounds and shelters, such waste is unjustifiable on ethical, scientific and economic grounds.
  • Banning the use of pound animals in biomedical research will not solve the problem of the large number of animals killed in pounds and shelters. The ban will not only result in needless animal death, it will also impose a greater burden on taxpayers to support increased costs of animal control. In addition, a ban will raise the cost of government-funded biomedical research and teaching grants, for which funds are already in short supply. It will create significant problems for biomedical researchers and veterinary and medical schools.
  • The high cost of acquiring purpose-bred animals to replace pound dogs and cats may price many research projects out of existence and curtail crucial areas of professional education. The result will be to slow the pace of research and the medical breakthroughs that come from that research. Most important, as discussed earlier in this pamphlet under "Cost Considerations", few scientific investigators of academic departments could support such cost increases. A prohibition against the use of pound animals would severly impede, or even price out of existence, many research and educational programs currently dependent on such animals.
  • Banning pound animal use would also jeopardize the quality of research. It takes years to develop scientifically reliable animal models of individual diseases or to accumulate enough information on a particular species to design studies likely to yield data of value in the battle against disease in animals and humans.
  • More is known about the normal and abnormal physiology and metabolism of the dog, than of any other large mammal. If researchers were forced to abandon research with dogs, because of a ban on the use of pound dogs and the prohibitive cost of purpose-bred animals to replace them, they would have to turn to other, less well understood species. The time it will take to acquire the same amount of knowledge about a new animal model may slow the rate of research and subsequent medical breakthroughs. In cases where there is no other scientifically reliable animal model, the amount of research and biomedical progress will be reduced significantly.
In any event, the projected cost to human and animal life is beyond calculation.

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MISMR members strongly support humane animal study in research. We hope that likeminded citizens will join us in working for rational public policy that assures the continued appropriate use of animals in the course of good science.