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Advances in Neuroscience Strengthen Ethical Opposition to Harmful Experiments on Dogs

2 Aug, 17 | by miriamwood

Guest Post: Jarrod Bailey, Cruelty Free International, London, UK.

Paper: Advances in Neuroscience Imply that Harmful Experiments in Dogs are Unethical

More than 200,000 dogs are used in harmful experiments every year worldwide, in research into human and animal diseases and in the testing of new drugs and agrochemicals. This continues despite significant public opposition to it, and of increasing scientific evidence of its poor human relevance and misleading nature. From a utilitarian perspective, these alter the harm-to-benefit balance of using dogs in experiments. If experiments on dogs cause more suffering than is commonly appreciated, and if they are not delivering the human benefits that are claimed of them, then these experiments must be reconsidered by those who fund, license, and conduct them.

But how do we know how much dogs can suffer, and how much joy they can experience and are thus deprived of in a laboratory? Many would argue that it is simply obvious that dogs have impressive cognitive capabilities, as well as experiencing positive and negative emotions. This is not enough for science, of course, which seems unable or unwilling to accept sentience in nonhumans as it does for humans, based on weight of evidence. For many years, efforts to understand the minds of dogs in more detail have centred on ethological research which, while extremely valuable, does have some associated, widely acknowledged caveats. It can only go so far, especially for those for whom the evidence it produces can perhaps never be sufficient to warrant a change of attitude and behaviour towards dogs.

Cruelty Free International (formerly BUAV, London, UK) has a long history of campaigning peacefully against animal research, both ethically (it is wrong to cause pain and suffering to animals), and scientifically (animal experiments have little or no relevance to humans). A major focus of ours in recent years has been ending the use of dogs in research and toxicity testing—an interest that led to the publication of two papers showing dog tests to be poorly predictive of drug safety in humans. A desire to underline this with an updated consideration of how neurological evidence further emphasises the ethical argument against dog experimentation led to our new paper in JME, in which we review and discuss this issue based on recent research involving functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of fully awake and unrestrained dog ‘volunteers’. It must be noted that these types of experiments, involving dogs that are companion animals, in research that is not harmful, and who may leave the experiment at any time if they wish, is not the type of research we are concerned about. In particular, fMRI brain imaging experiments have shown that dogs have positive, consistent responses in the caudate nucleus of their brains—implicated in positive emotions and expectations, enjoyment, and social rewards—to objects, stimuli, and people that they like that are similar to humans’ in manner and magnitude. Other fMRI research has demonstrated the sensitivity of dogs to human bonding, to verbal communication (not just verbal content, but also emotion and intonation), that they have well developed capacities for facial recognition (both identification and expressions/emotional representation), and that they can integrate all of this information to assess emotional states and intentions.

Our interpretation of this fMRI-based research is fortified by human studies that bolster the reliability of fMRI imaging. fMRI is showing, neurologically, that much of what we already knew about canine cognition and emotion from simple observation, experience, and ethological studies, is true. When dogs are hearing human language and understanding words, they’re also listening to intonation to perceive emotional states and intent; they’re combining this information with visual information about facial expressions to make their interpretation and assessments more accurate. More crucially, they experience positive emotions, empathic-like responses and demonstrate human bonding all of which are, in the opinion of some of the scientists involved, at least comparable to human children: “…there is a consensus that the mind of a dog is very similar in capacity and behaviours to the mind of a human 2 to 3-year-old” and, “The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.”  (More here and here.)

To conclude, we agree with neuroscientist Gregory Berns who, when talking of his work, said that these fMRI data “…make it harder to deny that dogs have feelings very much like we do”, and that it should “…become harder to justify using them as research subjects.”  Regulatory authorities worldwide should, therefore, recognize the urgency to review and re-evaluate the need, ethics and legalities of the use of dogs in harmful research and testing.


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