The National Institutes of Health enacted a similar policy for their lab animals in Feb. 2019

By Hilary Shenfeld
February 19, 2020 01:39 PM
Advertisement
Credit: Getty

Healthy dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs and other animals who have been used in lab research by the Food and Drug Administration will now be allowed to be adopted out as pets instead of euthanized, according to a new policy that was quietly enacted by the FDA.

In November, the FDA revised its policy guidelines to reflect its current stance, FDA spokeswoman Monique Richards told PEOPLE on Wednesday.

“The FDA has supported and continues to support the transfer, adoption, or retirement of FDA-owned research study animals that have completed their assigned studies and meet applicable eligibility criteria,” she said. “The November 2019 guideline expressly states the eligibility criteria for adoption, retirement and transfer. This is not a procedural change, but a newly approved internal standard guideline developed to provide overarching support to enhance and promote harmonization of FDA animal research activities.”

The White Coat Waste Project, a taxpayer watchdog group that works to cut federal funding to animal experiments, lauded the news.

“We are thrilled that the FDA is finally giving its lab animals the second chance they deserve,” Justin Goodman, a vice president for the group, tells PEOPLE. “Animals shouldn’t be used as government experiments in the first place. It’s cruel, it’s unscientific and it’s wasteful. The least they can do is allow them to live out their lives in people’s homes or sanctuaries.”

Former research animals can make great pets, according to Kellie Heckman, who recently adopted two cats that were released from a USDA lab that had been experimenting on cats and kittens.

Delilah, a 7-year-old, gray-and-white domestic shorthair, and Petite, a 5-year-old tabby, had been used for years to breed kittens for use as lab animals.

Credit: Kellie Heckman

“They had litter after litter,” Heckman tells PEOPLE. “They had essentially been used as incubators for cats.”

After spending 6 months in foster care after their release, the two relocated to Heckman’s St. Louis home.

“They’re playing with each other and with me. They love giving kisses,” she says. “Animals who survived lab experiments can live long, happy lives.”

The FDA conducts testing on animals primarily to determine the safety of drugs, vaccines and medical devices, according to the federal agency.

Studies measure such metrics as the amount of a drug absorbed into blood and its toxicity, how a medical product breaks down in the body and if a device can function in the body without causing harm, the FDA says.

“There are still many areas where animal testing is necessary and non-animal testing is not yet a scientifically valid and available option,” according to the agency. “However, FDA has supported efforts to reduce animal testing. In addition, FDA has research and development efforts underway to reduce the need for animal testing and to work toward replacement of animal testing.”

The FDA is tasked with protecting public health by assuring the safety of certain foods, drugs, vaccines, medical devices, cosmetics, dietary supplements and other products.

Mice and rats comprise the vast majority of all animals used as test subjects in U.S. labs. The remainder — more than 780,000 animals in 2018 — include cats, dogs, guinea pigs, hamsters, primates, pigs, rabbits and sheep, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Almost all are euthanized after the experiments conclude, Goodman says.

Recently, other federal agencies also have moved to encourage the adoption of their former lab animals, including the National Institutes of Health, which enacted a similar policy in February 2019 and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which in 2018 confirmed its position to allow its “healthy and socially adjusted” retired dogs and cats to be placed for adoption as pets.

Other testing facilities also release their lab animals for adoption sporadically but there is no national protocol.