animals and the pharmaceutical industry

Many folks have deep concerns about animals, and often work selflessly and tirelessly to support animal rights. (How pysched were you about The Cove‘s Oscar?) They tend to eat low on the food chain, often eschewing animal products entirely — including foods like honey and clothing made from wool. I applaud their principles and deep care for the more-than-human world (as ecofeminist scholar Chaone Mallory refers to it).

But as a physician I often see a disconnect on this issue when it comes to certain kinds of health care. For instance, many activists refuse to eat low-impact, health-promoting animal products but don’t think twice about prescription or over-the-counter medications that are tested extensively and cruelly on animals.

I want to be very clear: I am not saying people shouldn’t take drugs when they need them. From an activist perspective, you’re no good to your mission if you’re too ill to act! I’m curious, however, about balancing harms. Is regular consumption of fish/fish oil more cruel than what went into creating Prozac?

In my question to quantify the extent of pharmaceutical testing on animals, I sent a note to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Below is their response.

Dear Dr. Izakson,


I hope this e-mail finds you well. Thank you for contacting PETA regarding the use of animals in the pharmaceutical industry. As you are likely aware, data on the use of animals in experimentation is woefully inadequate. In the United States, mice and rats bred for experimentation—as well as birds, reptiles, amphibians, and agricultural animals used in agricultural experimentation—are entirely excluded from the Animal Welfare Act (the only federal law that governs the treatment of animals in laboratories); and laboratories are not required to report the numbers of these animals used. For pharmaceutical testing, monkeys, dogs, rabbits, mice, and rats are the preferred species; the fact that the numbers of mice and rats used are not collected is clearly a significant gap in the data. Moreover, in the U.S., the numbers of animals used in laboratories are reported as an aggregate: the number of animals used for pharmaceutical development and testing is not teased out from the number of animals used for other laboratory purposes (basic research, teaching, and the testing of non-pharmaceutical compounds such as pesticides, food additives, cosmetics, household products, etc.). Also, the number of animals used in the development and testing of different pharmaceutical compounds will vary depending on the specific type of drug being tested: while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that all drugs be tested for basic toxicity, different classes of drugs will also have to be tested for such things as immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity, liver toxicity, embryo toxicity, potential to cause cancer, cardiovascular safety, low-exposure toxicity over a long period of time, and so on.


However, it is—as you suggest—possible to come up with an estimate on the number of animals used by the pharmaceutical industry. In Europe, where the numbers of animals used are segregated by the nature of use, reports indicate that 10 percent of animals used in laboratories are used in pharmaceutical testing. Using the very conservative estimate that 100 million animals are used in U.S. laboratories every year, that would mean that some 10 million animals are used (and killed) in pharmaceutical testing. This obviously does not include the number of animals used in the development of the drugs.


An article in the November 2005 issue of the journal Nature offers additional authoritative estimates on numbers of animals used. The article notes: “Each chemical that goes through the multiple tests required for registration can use up to 5,000 animals.” The article further reports: “To test a single chemical for its potential to cause cancer takes five years and involves 400 rats, each of which is treated with the maximum tolerated dose. It is
dramatically over-predictive: more than 50% of the results are positive, of which 90% are false positives.”


It is worth noting that through the course of most pharmaceutical tests, there is little to no intervention when the animal suffers negative consequences from the drug as such intervention could interfere with the purpose of the tests. Since the “endpoint” for some of the tests is death, this necessarily means that many animals suffer considerably before they die either from the toxic effects of the drugs, or from painful side-effects caused through the forcible ingestion of massive quantities of the test drug. In a recent undercover investigation of Covance’s laboratories in Vienna, Virginia (Covance is the world’s largest contract testing firm; it tests drugs on animals for the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies), PETA documented terrible abuse of monkeys used in pharmaceutical testing (please see:


While millions of animals suffer abominably in pharmaceutical testing, this tragedy is compounded by the fact that tests on animals rarely offer data that can reliably be applied to humans. In 2006, then Health and Human Service Secretary Mike Leavitt remarked: “Currently, nine out of ten experimental drugs fail in clinical studies because we cannot accurately predict how they will behave in people based on laboratory and animal studies.”


Header photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash.