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Invasive dog experiments lead to increased VA scrutiny of research, possible loss of funding

US Secretary of Veterans Affairs David J. Shulkin has come out in defense of VA medical research experiments performed on dogs. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

After an investigation by the Department of Veterans Affairs revealed dogs, sometimes puppies, being subjected to overdoses and botched surgeries during medical experiments, research experiments involving dogs will be scrutinized more heavily by the VA.

What's happening to the dogs?

The VA uses dogs for medical research because their heartbeat pacing system is more like humans' than those of other animals, according to VA Chief Veterinary Medical Officer Michael Fallon.

According to USA Today, some of the goals of the research include looking for ways to decrease pain without slowing breathing, restoring cough functions after spinal cord injury, and finding new therapies to treat heart disease.

As part of some of the experiments, the dogs are:

  • Given anesthesia
  • Sometimes subject to having parts of their brain removed to eliminate consciousness and sensation
  • Given spinal stimulation both before and after the spine is severed
  • Equipped with pacemakers and put on treadmills, where they run while they're given medications that induce irregular heartbeats, create heart attacks and block arteries
  • Euthanized by lethal injection or by having their blood drained

What spurred the investigation?

The VA's Office of Research Oversight found out that researchers in Richmond, Va., were not completing documentation verifying the proper treatment of the dogs, and four dogs suffered complications in experimental surgeries.

Debate about the program

Advocates of the dog research program, such as VA Secretary David Shulkin, say the experiments have led to important breakthroughs that improve the lives of disabled veterans. In addition, the VA says less than 1% of VA research experiments involve dogs.

Opponents of the program claim that it has been decades since meaningful breakthroughs have resulted from research experiments performed on dogs, and that there are alternatives to these sometimes painful experiments that could serve the same purposes.

Funding is at stake

The House of Representatives passed legislation in July that would eliminate funding for VA dog experiments deemed to be painful for the animals. The fight is now in progress to determine whether the legislation will pass the Senate.

“If this legislation passes the Senate, it would stop potential VA canine research-related medical advancements that offer seriously disabled veterans the hope of a better future,” Shulkin wrote in an op-ed.

Still, advocacy groups condemn the experiments as cruel and unnecessary.

"The VA is abusing its authority and fear-mongering to defend taxpayer-funded experiments on dogs that are cruel and unlikely to help veterans or anybody else,” said Justin Goodman, vice president of the White Coat Waste Project.

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