Veterinary Involvement in IACUCs: Advocating for the Welfare of Animals Used in Research

April 11, 2011

by George Bates, DVM

For the veterinary practitioner, there are myriad ways to serve as an animal advocate both in and outside the clinic setting. One lesser-known advocacy role—and one for which there is an ongoing need for veterinarians—is to serve on an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) and utilize one's professional expertise to help protect the health and welfare of animals used in research.

Although the job may sound daunting, in actuality veterinarians having clinical experience with privately-owned animals of species similar to those used at a given research institution are well qualified to serve on the IACUC, provided they take the time to familiarize themselves with the various laws and standards governing laboratory animal use in the United States.

I, myself, served on a college IACUC for 10 years, having been appointed to the position essentially because I was the only available veterinarian teaching at a small, rural college with a veterinary medical technology program. However, the job is basically open to any qualified veterinarian, not just veterinarians affiliated with the research institution.

Federal laws governing care of research animals

IACUCs exist as the result of two federal laws: the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and the Health Research Extension Act (HREA). The AWA regulates the use of dogs, cats, primates, pigs, cetaceans and most other mammalian species used in biomedical research and experimentation. Due to a Congressional amendment promoted by the research industry and passed in 2002, purpose-bred mice, rats and birds (which together comprise over 90% of the animals used in research), as well as farm animals used for agricultural purposes, are specifically excluded from AWA oversight.

Mouse in cage
Purpose-bred mice, rats and birds comprise over 90% of the animals used in research.

All institutions utilizing the covered species in research or teaching must comply with the provisions of the AWA and are subject to periodic inspections by the United States Department of Agriculture. For some species, like dogs and cats, the AWA regulations regarding housing and care are quite specific and strictly enforced.

The HREA regulations are overseen by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) within the Department of Health and Human Services and cover all species of vertebrates used for research in any institution that receives biomedical research funds from the federal government. The NIH requirements are more flexible than those of the AWA and outside inspections to verify compliance are rare. While only those institutions receiving federal research grants are required by law to abide by the NIH regulations, some small colleges not receiving federal funds still opt to voluntarily adhere to the NIH standards.

Within institutions falling under both AWA and NIH oversight, it is easiest, operationally speaking, to think of all vertebrate animals as being covered under the NIH standards and all mammals, other than purpose-bred rats and mice and purely agricultural production animals, as being further protected by the AWA regulations.

IACUCs are required to have a veterinary member

Both the AWA and the NIH mandate a functioning IACUC at every institution under their jurisdiction and further specify that each of these IACUCs include as a member at least one veterinarian “either (ACLAM) certified or with training and experience in laboratory animal science or in the use of the species at the institution.” As noted above, veterinarians having clinical experience with privately-owned animals of species similar to those used at a given institution are well-qualified to serve on the IACUC, provided they take the time to familiarize themselves with the applicable laws and standards.

While large universities active in biomedical research typically utilize an in-house laboratory animal veterinarian to comply with this IACUC membership requirement, some smaller colleges without a full-time veterinarian on staff may look to outsource the job to a private practitioner in the community. This is where a motivated clinician or retired veterinarian might play a role. Any veterinarian considering such a position is well-advised to thoroughly familiarize themselves with the National Research Council’s Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals (National Academies Press, 2011). All laboratory animal standards and policies under the aegis of the NIH refer back to this one authoritative (but mercifully slim!) handbook.

Role of IACUC

IACUC members are responsible for periodic inspection tours of their institution’s facilities and review of proposed and on-going research projects. With respect to the latter function, an important point is that IACUCs do not typically rule on the merit, or lack thereof, of specific research proposals; this especially being the case if a project has been approved by a federal agency that has already, theoretically, weighed its scientific value prior to funding. IACUCs are tasked more with seeing that the research protocol followed will faithfully conform to public policies enunciated in the AWA and HREA; specifically that animals be used properly “including the avoidance or minimization of discomfort, distress, and pain” during experimentation and that “the living conditions of animals should be appropriate for their species and contribute to their health and comfort.”

Would-be researchers are also required under the law to do a comprehensive search of the scientific literature to identify “alternatives” that could be used to mitigate experimental animal discomfort or substitute for animal use entirely. Whether these alternatives are ultimately employed sometimes comes down to a researcher’s personal preferences or a matter of economics. Using expendable laboratory animals is oftentimes less costly than investing in sophisticated equipment that would obviate the need for animal use. IACUCs are also supposed to monitor the conduct of ongoing research to insure that it faithfully adheres to the experimental protocol that was reviewed and approved by IACUC. Once a protocol has been approved by the IACUC it is unlawful for the researcher to deviate from it. However, unless IACUC members are committed to diligently monitoring ongoing research projects, investigators may sometimes significantly alter their research protocol without bothering to notify the IACUC or seek its prior approval.

When no federal funding agency has reviewed and approved a research proposal beforehand, IACUC members have more leeway to critically consider the project’s overall scientific merit. This is particularly true now that the latest edition of the Guide officially embraces the so-called “3Rs” of animal-using research: Replacement—research methods that avoid using animals or that substitute lower life-forms for higher animals; Reduction—emphasis on good experimental design and appropriate statistical methods that make feasible the use of the fewest animals necessary to achieve a defined research goal; and Refinement—modifying experimental protocols to mitigate pain and suffering as much as possible and enhance the overall welfare of the experimental animals.

Could an IACUC be a good fit for you?

I would not describe any researcher that I’ve encountered in academia as being intentionally cruel to his or her research subjects, but many can be legitimately characterized as ruthless and/or uneducated—ruthless in the sense that animal welfare, in their worldview, takes a distant back seat to the primary objectives of their research, whether those objectives be scientific, pedagogical or merely career advancement; and uneducated in the sense that most non-veterinarian researchers have, at best, only a superficial understanding of animal anesthesia, analgesia and euthanasia (for instance, most researchers are oblivious to current controversies surrounding “euthanasia” by carbon dioxide asphyxiation, credulously citing the AVMA’s Guidelines on Euthanasia as incontrovertible proof of its humaneness).

This is precisely where a knowledgeable veterinarian’s expertise can have a positive impact on animal welfare—first, by educating researchers as to appropriate methods and drugs for inducing anesthesia, obtunding pain and humanely killing research subjects; and second, by working through the IACUC to assure full compliance with existing laws specifying minimum husbandry standards for experimental animals.

Veterinarians interested in using their knowledge and skills to promote the welfare of laboratory animals and who reside near small colleges are encouraged to look into the institution’s IACUC and see if there is an opening they might fill.

Dr. George Bates is an Associate Professor of Veterinary Medical Technology at Wilson College in Chambersburg, PA. He served on the IACUC at Wilson College for 10 years. He recently authored an article regarding euthanasia of research animals entitled, “Humane Issues Surrounding Decapitation Reconsidered,” JAVMA, Vol. 237, No. 9, Nov. 1, 2010.