Skip to main content

Animal Research vs Animal Experimentation

Most people use the phrases animal research and animal experimentation interchangeably. Most people do not use the phrases human research and human experimentation interchangeably. The reason we differentiate research from experimentation on humans is self-evident—research implies consent while experimentation does not. In reality, humans are subject to medical experiments but only if they volunteer or are provided money in exchange. So there is more to the research vs experimentation dichotomy than just consent.

Research implies that the participant might benefit from the study being performed while experimentation implies the probability of the participant benefitting is very low. People volunteer to test new drugs in exchange for money: an oxymoron. While giving people cash in exchange for the use of their body is taboo in our society, hence the euphemism volunteer, some people have this as an occupation and their main source of income. The probability that these volunteers will benefit from testing the new drug is essentially zero.

People who are involved in invasive medical research usually have the disease being studied and seek to derive benefit either directly or indirectly. There are areas of overlap between research and experimentation but most of the time one can easily distinguish between the two. The same is true of animal research and animal experimentation. Consider Nemo.

Nemo is a 700+ pound pig who was recently diagnosed with lymphoma. He was treated for this with chemotherapy at Cornell University Hospital for Animals and is thought to be the first pig so treated. His story can be read at the above link. The Cornell oncologist Cheryl Balkman stated: “We adapted a treatment plan based on what we know is effective in dogs, cats and humans with lymphoma.” This is animal research just as treating a first-time case of a disease in humans would be human research. The purpose of treating Nemo was to cure Nemo or at least make him feel better. It was research because no one had any experience with this disease in pigs and because whatever was done would probably be reported in the veterinary literature so others could benefit from this new knowledge. It was not experimentation because Nemo and his humans wanted Nemo to get better and thus gave their consent just like parents consent for their children to undergo new therapies. Experimentation would have been inducing a disease in Nemo that he probably would not have otherwise contracted and giving him medications, regardless of the origin of his disease, merely to increase our knowledge about the disease or the medication. Nemo’s wellbeing would not be a consideration in experimentation.

Likewise, a new drug called PAC-1 has been shown effective in treating cancers in dogs. The drug is being developed for humans with brain cancer and was administered to dogs from the community who were already suffering from other cancers. Tim Fan of the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital stated: “We know that mice will always be used as a traditional model for cancer research. But conventional preclinical models use mice with induced cancers, which fail to faithfully recapitulate the development of natural cancers. This means that novel therapeutics that may be effective in mice might fail in patients that develop cancer spontaneously, as observed in both dogs and people.”

Fan is correct in what he confirms but wrong in what he denies. Yes, drugs that are effective or ineffective in mice might be ineffective or effective in humans but so too might drugs that were tested in dogs. Humans are more closely related to chimpanzees than mice and dogs but chimpanzees are not of predictive value for human response to drugs and disease either.[1-5] Moreover, naturally occurring cancers have too little in common among species for animal models to be of predictive value for humans.[6] Decades of cancer research in mice have proved this. If PAC-1 is effective in humans, and I hope it will be, this will be one instance of an animal—dogs—reacting the same as humans and that is insufficient to claim that dogs offer predictive value for humans. The mechanisms the drug uses for curing cancer may not even be the same in the two species.

Regardless, administering PAC-1 to dogs is an example of research not experimentation. Expecting the results to transfer across species lines is an example of wishful thinking.

The way these drugs were administered to Nemo and the dogs is essentially the way human research is conducted. Humans present to hospitals, usually teaching hospitals, with incurable illnesses and they are given new drugs that may or may not be effective. Even when patients have a non-lethal illness, when that illness crosses a line in terms of interfering with the activities of daily living or pain or disfigurement, such patients may want to try a new treatment despite the risks associated with new treatments. If animal experimentation stopped tomorrow, new treatments for animals would continue in the framework of the above. Experiments on animals such as are performed with NIH grants are rarely conducted on behalf of animals and when they are they should, for scientific reasons, be conducted like the above. We don’t need alternatives to animal experimentation conducted with the goal of benefiting animals; we already have them. We need to mandate that such studies be conducted like the above.

Scientifically, animal research works. Animal experimentation works if the goal is to add knowledge to the world or maybe get an idea for what to study in humans. But experiments on animals do not provide data that has predictive value for human response to drugs and disease.[7] Society wants predictive value and vivisection activists have assured society that animal models provide predictive value. Conflating animal research with animal experimentation is part of this effort.

As long as vivisection activists can conflate experimentation with research they can convince the unknowing that what vivisectors really do with animal in labs is all touchy-feely and composed of warm blankets and chocolate cake. So why worry if that whole prediction thing is not working out? Words have meaning and implications. An industry as large as the animal model industry hires the same consultants political campaigns hire to make sure that when they use a word it conveys the meaning they want it to convey regardless of the validity of the dictionary definition of the word. Vivisection activists and politicians both lie.


1.         Shanks, N. and R. Greek, Animal Models in Light of Evolution. 2009, Boca Raton: Brown Walker.

2.         Greek, R. and N. Shanks, Complex systems, evolution, and animal models. Studies in history and philosophy of biological and biomedical sciences, 2011. 42(4): p. 542-4.

3.         Greek, R., N. Shanks, and M.J. Rice, The History and Implications of Testing Thalidomide on Animals. The Journal of Philosophy, Science & Law, 2011. 11(October 3).

4.         Greek, R., Animal Models and the Development of an HIV Vaccine. J AIDS Clinic Res, 2012: p. S8:001.

5.         Jones, R.C. and R. Greek, A Review of the Institute of Medicine's Analysis of using Chimpanzees in Biomedical Research. Sci Eng Ethics, 2013.

6.         Greek, R., Animal Models of Cancer in Light of Evolutionary Biology and Complexity Science, in The Research and Biology of Cancer. 2013, iConcept Press: Hong Kong.

7.         Greek, R. and N. Shanks, FAQs About the Use of Animals in Science: A handbook for the scientifically perplexed. 2009, Lanham: University Press of America.


Popular Video