Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin warned Congress on Tuesday of the consequences of banning dog experiments at the VA, saying that a prohibition on the research would harm disabled veterans.
In an op-ed published Tuesday amid a major controversy on VA animal experiments, Shulkin said that anti-VA dog experiment legislation added to a spending bill that has already passed the House would block dog research leading to medical discoveries that “offer seriously disabled veterans the hope of a better future.”
“Science and research are more critical than ever in providing breakthroughs for many unique conditions affecting our veterans,” Shulkin wrote. “America needs VA’s innovative research programs, and veterans and their families have earned them. We owe it to these patriots to do all we can to develop medical advancements that could help restore some of what they have sacrificed in service to our nation.”
Shulkin effectively wants the Senate to strip legislation prohibiting animal experiments from the spending bill.
For Shulkin, the use of dogs is essential in VA research because of the similarities in electrical properties between dog and human hearts and the fact that both are of similar size, at least compared to rats or mice. Moreover, only the VA is capable of carrying out this kind of research because the population impacted by such treatments is too small to make such efforts feasible in the private sector. The profit motive simply is not present. Shulkin noted that trying to substitute in computer models fails in many cases because models depend on a prior understanding of what’s occurring on the biological and physiological levels, which is often missing.
“Much of this understanding is still only available through canine research since dog physiology in many cases resembles human physiology with respect to some medical conditions,” Shulkin said.
Current VA animal research is focused on attempts to stop fatal lung infections affecting veterans suffering from spinal cord injuries.
The battle over animal research has come to the forefront following a series of reports showing botched and painful experiments on puppies taking place at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA medical center in Virginia. Revelations of abuse prompted GOP Rep. Dave Brat and Democratic Rep. Dina Titus to introduce the PUPPERS Act in July to prohibit medical experiments that cause dogs to feel pain or distress. The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
Both Brat and Titus applauded the fact that the House included their amendment, virtually identical to PUPPERS, to block animal experiments for one year in the $788 billion minibus spending package. However, Titus voted against the minibus bill in July.
Veterans’ organizations have also entered the fight in recent months, with groups like The American Legion, Paralyzed Veterans of America and Disabled American Veterans weighing in on the pro-animal research side.
The American Legion wrote a letter to the Senate Committee on Appropriations at the beginning of September expressing opposition to the minibus amendment and urging the committee to strip out the proposal from the final version of the minibus.
“There are many pet owners and animal lovers in The American Legion,” the organization wrote in the letter. “Sometimes animal research is needed for the greater good of protecting human life. The American Legion believes VA researchers take every precaution possible to ensure that these animals are treated as humanely as possible.”
A coalition of medical and veterans’ groups also sent a letter to the House Committee on Appropriations in late August arguing that the prohibition on dog experiments will “will impede scientific research and unnecessarily delay research advances for our nation’s veterans.”
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