Animal Research: Animal Welfare vs. Animal Rights

Reading time: 6 – 10 minutes

Essentially every major medical advance in the last century — from antibiotics to analgesics such as Tylenol or Motrin, from blood transfusions to organ transplantation, from vaccinations to chemotherapy, bypass surgery and joint replacement — is based on knowledge obtained through research with animals. In fact, almost 75% of all Nobel Prizes in Medicine awarded since 1901 were won for discoveries that required the use of animals [1].

Mouse on test tubes

Indeed, animal-based research has contributed to a significant improvement in the quality and length of human life. From cancer to heart disease and stroke to diabetes, society benefits from the use of laboratory animals in biomedical research [2]. Unfortunately, there is a worldwide movement that seeks to halt those advances and establish moral and legal equality between humans and animals, to eliminate the status of animals as property (meaning domestic pets and livestock for food), and to stop the use of animals in biomedical research.

The debate between those who support animal research and those that don’t often gets portrayed in such a way that it appears that one group cares about animals while the other group doesn’t. This isn’t the case at all — fundamentally, the issue is how to reduce the total suffering for both humans and animals.

One one side: Animal Rights

Animal rights is an extreme view that attempts to elevate all animals to equality with humans by applying human interpretations of morality. It is based on the philosophical belief that animals have moral rights to life, liberty and other privileges that should be protected by society and the rule of law.

Animal rights means that an infant has the same right to life as the mouse under your sink at home or a cow in the pasture. Animal rights proposes that it is unacceptable to use animals for any human purpose at all, including the use of dogs and cats as pets, cows and pigs for food, or the use of animals in research and testing. Regardless of how humane, animal rights proponents reject all animal use as exploitation and aim to ban all use of animals by humans.

If you support animal rights, then you reject eating any animal as food, abstain from taking any over-the-counter drug and/or prescription medication, and refuse all vaccinations and/or medical treatment.

On the other side: Animal Welfare

In contrast to animal rights, animal welfare is the desire to implement humane care and use standards for animals in research, testing, teaching and exhibition. Animal research is guided by a intricate set of federal and state laws, regulations and guidelines, particularly with regard to potential pain [3]. The Animal Welfare Act, the Public Health Service Act and Federal laws regulate animal care, feeding, exercise of dogs and the psychological well-being of primates, as well as the reduction and elimination of pain.

In addition, every research facility is required to have an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which consists of research experts, licensed veterinarians and members of the public. This committee is responsible for reviewing and approving the proposed use of animals, and for overseeing the care and use of those animals by inspecting the facilities, monitoring the programs and responding to any concerns raised by that use.

Animal welfare takes the position that it is morally acceptable for humans to use non-human animals, provided that adverse effects are minimized as much as possible, short of not using the animals at all. It is based on the belief that animals can contribute to human welfare by providing companionship, entertainment, food, fiber, labor, or by use in biomedical research or education, and humans have the moral obligation to provide for the well-being of animals. This means adhering to responsible practices in all aspects of animal welfare, from proper housing and management, to disease prevention and treatment, to humane handling and, when necessary, humane euthanasia. Indeed, animals used in biomedical research see a veterinarian more times per month than most people see their doctor!

Facts vs. myths about animals used for biomedical research

MYTH: Animals are not necessary for medical research. Most breakthroughs have resulted from epidemiological studies, computer models and cell cultures.
FACT: Biomedical research involving lab animals has played a vital role in virtually every major medical advance of the last century. Physicians and scientists overwhelmingly agree that animal systems provide invaluable and irreplaceable insights into human systems because there are striking similarities between the genetic and physiological systems of animals and humans.

MYTH: Dogs, cats and monkeys are the most popular research animals.
FACT: Approximately 95% of all research animals are rodents — mice and rats — bred specifically for research. Researchers use rodent animal models because their physiology closely resembles that of humans and their genetic make-up is well-defined. Dogs, cats and non-human primates together account for less than one-half of one percent of the total, and their number has declined for more than 25 years. Since 1979, the number of dogs and cats needed in animal research has declined by more than 50 percent. The number of primates needed represents 0.2 percent and has remained relatively constant — in the 50,000 per year range — for the past decade.

MYTH: There are no laws or government regulations to protect research animals.
FACT: The USDA has set forth federal regulations governing the care and use of animals in biomedical research that are considered more extensive than those covering human research subjects. The Animal Welfare Act sets high standards of care for research animals with regard to their housing, feeding, cleanliness, ventilation and medical needs. It also requires the use of anesthesia or analgesic drugs for potentially painful procedures and during post-operative care.

MYTH: Researchers are indifferent to the well-being of animals.
FACT: For humane, compassionate and scientific reasons, researchers are deeply concerned about the condition of the animals they study. This is not a controversial position — there is no constituency for inhumane or irresponsible treatment. Poor care results in unreliable research data. For results to be valid, animal subjects must be in good condition and appropriately healthy. Also, pain and distress are thought to have a negative impact on the immune system so researchers are careful to protect their animals from undue stress.

MYTH: Research animals are kept in pain.
FACT: The vast majority of biomedical research does not result in significant discomfort or distress to research animals. The 2006 USDA Annual Report reveals that 57 percent of all research procedures with animals involved no more than slight or momentary pain or distress (i.e., an injection). Thirty-eight percent of the research procedures employed anesthesia and post- operative painkillers. In seven percent of the procedures, neither anesthesia nor pain medication could be used, as they would have interfered with research results. However, when this is the case, discomfort is minimized as much as possible.

Visit the Foundation for Biomedical Research to learn more about the benefits of biomedical research and read more facts vs. myths about animals used for biomedical research.


  1. Medical Progress and Biomedical Research – The Nobel Laureates. National Association for Biomedical Research. Accessed 2010 Sep 21.
  2. Animal Research Benefits. Americans for Medical Progress. Accessed 2010 Sep 21.
  3. Research Regulations. Speaking of Research. Accessed 2010 Sep 21.
About the Author

Walter Jessen, Ph.D. is a Data Scientist, Digital Biologist, and Knowledge Engineer. His primary focus is to build and support expert systems, including AI (artificial intelligence) and user-generated platforms, and to identify and develop methods to capture, organize, integrate, and make accessible company knowledge. His research interests include disease biology modeling and biomarker identification. He is also a Principal at Highlight Health Media, which publishes Highlight HEALTH, and lead writer at Highlight HEALTH.