Frequently Asked Questions

Why use animals in research?

Animal research is essential for three basic purposes:

  • To explore basic biology
  • To develop treatments for diseases and disabilities
  • To promote health and safety for animals, people and the environment

Why can’t you replace animals with a computer?

Humans, like all animals, are extremely complicated. Drug development, for example, shows the difficulty of finding an accurate alternative. Many drugs are discovered because a chemical compound does something useful in a laboratory dish, but that discovery is followed by a long process of trial and error: first with simple animals, then with more advanced ones. Even the drugs that do reach human trial often either fail to work or have unacceptable side effects, often discovered first through testing on animals.

It’s true that some drugs and diseases “work” one way in mice and another in people; but if animal research can be misleading, computer-based research is likely to be even more difficult. When so much is unknown, how could we possibly program a computer to test drugs and procedures? To put it another way: we will not be able to do all our health and biology research in computers until we have nothing left to learn about health and biology.

Do your researchers look at alternatives to using live animals?

Yes. Following the federal Animal Welfare Act, the UW–Madison Researcher’s Guide to Animal Care and Use specifies that investigators consider alternatives to animal use, as part of its commitment to humane research:

  • Replacement; using non-animal alternatives, such as cell culture, or choosing a species lower on the phylogenetic tree (mice instead of monkeys)
  • Reduction; using the smallest number of animals necessary for valid scientific results
  • Refinement; choosing procedures that minimize pain and distress.

Can you reduce your use of animals by doing something else?

Yes, and we are. For example, two types of stem cells (embryonic and induced pluripotent) are producing human cells that are already being used to test candidate drugs for toxicity. These stem cells are routinely used to produce human heart muscle cells, and because heart toxicity can be lethal, this process will save the lives of both animals and people. Other projects are looking into computer simulations of various sorts that can help reduce the need for research animals.

The federal government is looking into alternatives to animal research.

Who regulates animal research on campus?

Both federal and university bodies regulate research using vertebrate animals:

How is an animal research proposal approved?

Animal research is described and governed by a “protocol,” a description of the project that constitutes a contract between the principal investigator and the UW–Madison Animal Care and Use Committee (ACUC).

The review and approval for an animal care and use protocol follows these steps:

  • Protocol application is prepared by the investigator and submitted to the Research Animal Resource Center (RARC), which assigns the protocol to the appropriate Animal Care and Use Committee for review.
  • The ACUC can approve the protocol as is, approve it pending answers to certain questions, or require substantial revision.
  • RARC staff communicates the ACUC’s approval or request for further information/revision to the Investigator.
  • Research can begin after the protocol is approved.

Prior to making any significant change to the protocol, investigators must get approval of the relevant ACUC.

Who uses animals in research on campus?

A wide variety of UW–Madison researchers, including veterinarians, medical doctors, scientists and students at all levels of the university, are involved in animal research. Everybody involved in animal research must be trained in animal regulations and care, and have the necessary skills and training. Also, the research must be carried out in licensed premises meeting strict standards and subject to regular inspection.

Is it ethical for humans to experiment on animals?

The wide range of students, faculty and scientists at UW–Madison who use animals in research believe that the use of animals in medical research is ethical when performed under strict regulation, in situations where practical alternatives do not exist. The ethical decision amounts to a trade-off between the harm that may be done to the animals and the benefits to suffering patients, today and in the future. The vast majority of biomedical scientists believe that the abolition of animal research is an unrealistic position.

While we respect the viewpoint of those who oppose research on animals, we feel that the potential benefits to human welfare, animal welfare and basic knowledge about life are too important to not do the research. An argument can be made that refraining from this research would actually be unethical.

Do research animals ever get adopted?

The University of Wisconsin–Madison has a long-standing policy on research animal adoption. It allows UW–Madison to put animals up for adoption with the approval of the university’s veterinarians and after consideration of a number of factors. These are addressed in the institution’s full policy, which can be found here:

To be eligible for adoption, animals must no longer be needed by the university for research or teaching. Animals must also be healthy and must have a suitable temperament and long-term health status to be a pet, as determined by university research animal veterinary staff.

UW–Madison policy does not permit adoption of nonhuman primates. With few exceptions, this is primarily because the animals continue to be needed for research. The national primate centers funded by the National Institutes of Health maintain stable animal colonies that are studied across the lifespan. Health research at these centers includes studies of aging and diseases associated with age, such as Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline. Thus, older animals contribute to scientific studies.

The centers also maintain valuable tissues and cells from animals that are humanely euthanized. Those tissues are critical to a wide range of scientific studies and are shared with scientists around the world. This helps answer important scientific questions about human and animal health, but also likely reduces — through collaboration and sharing — the overall number of non-human primates in research.

UW–Madison may consider retirement of non-human primates only in the event they are no longer needed for research, only if the facilities receiving them can assure high-quality care, and only to facilities with a demonstrated ability to protect the animal’s wellbeing and health by providing stable care over the course of its lifetime. Any such facilities would necessarily be subject to regulation and monitoring by the United States Department of Agriculture on a permanent basis.