Animal Testing: Is It Effective, And What Happens To ‘Lab Animals’?

Despite ethical and cruelty concerns, non-human animals are still routinely used in experiments for pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and other research across the globe


7 Minutes Read

A rabbit immobilized in a restraint before having her ears mutilated in an animal test Hundreds of millions of animals are used in tests all over the world - Media Credit: Carlota Saorsa / HIDDEN / We Animals Media

While there is growing public awareness of the horrors of animal testing and experiments, it remains one of the most hidden industries in the world. For decades, non-human animals have been abused, tortured, and killed in the name of science. Yet most of the world’s human population has little to no idea what’s happening behind laboratory doors. 

Industries that use such experiments are often able to do so in secret, and there tends to be minimal regulation or ethical protections for animals. 

Today (April 24) is World Laboratory Day, a day to commemorate the hundreds of millions of animals condemned to suffer in silence in research labs all over the globe. 

Jo-Anne McArthur is a photojournalist for We Animals Media. She dedicates her life to shining light on hidden animals, including those used in tests. Here, she shares some of the organization’s most powerful photographs depicting these “lab” animals, as well as what she’s learned about the industry. 

A rabbit with a shaved back being used in animal tests
Carlota Saorsa / HIDDEN / We Animals Media. Rabbits are popular in animal tests due to their naturally calm demeanor. This animal has had their back shaved in preparation for a product dermal toxicity test. Photo taken in Spain in 2018

Why are animals used for tests?

Animals are used in a wide variety of tests, including for cosmetic, pharmaceutical, academic, and military research. It’s thought that more than 115 million animals are used for experiments around the world each year. 

“Researchers use them to test the safety of a product, substance or drug; to test whether a drug has a desired effect; to test theories and ideas about how live bodies react to certain stressors; or even to train veterinary students on procedures,” McArthur says. 

A pig used in military animal tests
Carlota Saorsa / HIDDEN / We Animals Media A pig used in animal tests in Spain, 2019, awaits administration of an infusion in a jugular catheter

Many animal tests are done purely for research papers, but some are required by law. A key example of the latter is those for pharmaceuticals. In the UK, all new drugs have to be tested on two mammals (a rodent and non-rodent) before human trials.

Some countries, including the US, have made recent steps to move away from such mandatory testing

What animals are used for animal tests?

Mice used for animal tests being killed in a science lab
Roger Kingbird / HIDDEN / We Animals Media. Mice are one of the most commonly used animals in laboratory testing. This photo, taken in the USA in 2020, shows mice who are no longer of any use in testing being killed by carbon dioxide and bagged for incineration

A number of different species are used in experiments. While most people are aware that rodents like mice and rats are common, many may not realize the wide variety of animals used. Pigs, horses, snakes, primates, cows, owls, and sheep are just a few examples. Dogs are also a popular testing animal, with beagles being particularly prevalent due to their calm demeanor. 

“Most often the animals in labs are the ones people think of as pets,” says McArthur. “So a tight lid is kept on these tests for the sake of public relations.”

A beagle used in laboratory animal testing
Jo-Anne McArthur / The Ghosts In Our Machine / We Animals Media Much of the public are unaware that dogs (often beagles) are commonly used for animal tests. Abby (pictured here) spent the first year of her life in a small dog run in a veterinary school. She was used as a teaching candidate for the spay program. Aside from being occasionally walked by volunteers, she never left the university. She was adopted in 2021, and now lives with a family

Why is animal testing hidden?

Animal-based research tends to be kept under a veil of secrecy. While experiments are in theory regulated, there is actually very little chance that cruelty or welfare breaches will be exposed.

Experiments happen behind closed doors, meaning the public largely has little idea of what researchers are actually doing to the animals. 

“The public generally doesn’t have access to science labs and research facilities have no motivation to show the public how they use animals,” says McArthur.

“Many companies are simply doing the testing they feel they need to do, or are even required legally to do, but it’s also true that corporations and science labs don’t want images leaked from these places because people will not be happy with how animals are tested, which can lead to protests and compromise funding.”

A rescued chimp, previously used for science experiments, sits in a nest made from blankets
Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media This photo of Ron was taken at Save the Chimps in the USA 2011. Before being rescued by the organization, Ron was used in invasive research and lived in a cage suspended above the ground. During his time as a lab animal, he was anesthetized 105 times for invasive surgical procedures. Despite acres of sanctuary space, Ron chose to spend most of his time indoors following his rescue. Each day, he would carefully arrange his blankets to form a nest around him. He died in October 2011. His death was said to be peaceful but premature, the latter of which is common for rescued lab animals.

Cruelty in research labs

The methods of animal tests are varied and depend on the industry, but campaigners have long argued that even “mild” experiments can cause significant psychological and physical stress to animals. Tests tend to inflict significant pain on animals, and they almost always end in death or euthanasia. 

“Researchers will poison animals to determine whether humans might also be poisoned,” McArthur says. “They will inflict spine or brain injuries onto mice and record how they subsequently behave; they will get rats addicted to drugs to monitor withdrawal symptoms; they will breed genetically engineered rodents to grow tumors in order to study them.”

A monkey and her baby being held by a worker at a macaque breeding facility
Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media Monkeys are often used for research, and the long-tailed macaque is the most heavily traded breed. This photo was taken at a breeding facility in Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 2011

Does animal testing work? Are there any alternatives?

Many animal tests, particularly those done for cosmetics and some research purposes, are hugely controversial among the general population. Animal testing for pharmaceuticals, however, is widely accepted by the public, often deemed a necessary evil and essential for human healthcare. 

But some experts have pointed out that animal tests for pharmaceuticals are often largely inefficient, as well as cruel. 

A 2014 review published in the BMJ (British Medical Journal) stated: “Several studies have shown that even the most promising findings from animal research often fail in human trials and are rarely adopted into clinical practice.”

A sheep behind bars at an animal research facility
Roger Kingbird / We Animals Media This photo, taken in a medical research lab in the US, shows a sheep waiting to be taken through to a surgical procedure from which they will not be woken up. Sheep are herd animals who do not like to be alone.

According to Cruelty Free International (CFI), around 90 percent drugs that deliver promising results during animal tests go on to fail in human trials. 

Alternatives to animal testing, as outlined by CFI, include: 

  • Cell cultures (where human and animal cells are grown in a laboratory)
  • Human tissues (healthy and diseased tissues taken from human volunteers)
  • Computer models (replicating aspects of the human body on a computer)
  • Volunteer studies (where human volunteers are studied safely due to advances in technology) 

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