Are Animal Experiments Humane?

animal testing

All around the world, millions of live and dead animals are being experimented in the name of science. Testing on live animals is known as ‘vivisection’, which comes from the Latin words vivus, meaning ‘alive’, and sectio, meaning ‘cutting’ [1]. There are two main types of testing, basic (investigating biology and human disease) and applied (drug research, toxicity, and safety testing) [2]. When an experiment is conducted on a dead animal, it is known as dissection. All of these aim to inform health sciences and biology and create products that benefit human health and reduce safety concerns. Experimentation on dead animals is called ‘dissection’. Many scientists, however, are speaking out, stating how it is ineffective and no longer necessary. All of the procedures cause both physical and psychological suffering in the animals. The following article discusses the animals involved, how the industry operates, and alternative methods that are available.

About the animals

Almost no animal is safe from the research industry. In saying this, the most common species used are rats, mice, fish, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, birds, cats, dogs, pigs, monkeys, and farm animals [3]. Each of these animals has the capacity to feel pain, experience stress, and suffer as a result of being exploited in the name of science.

monkey lab

The Industry

Animals have been repeatedly used throughout history, with recordings from Early Greek physician-scientists, like Aristotle, in 384-322 BC [4]. The industry is now a multi-billion dollar industry, entwined with pharmaceutical and chemical industries, the government, and universities. 

The exact number of animals used in experiments around the world is unknown, as there are different reporting standards in each country. Cruelty Free International and Dr Hadwen Trust, however, monitor the industry and in 2015, estimated that at least 115 million animals were used in laboratories across the globe [5 PDF]. In addition to these animals, millions of others are also killed for their tissue, used to create genetically modified animal strains, or are considered a “surplus” and thrown away [6]. 

animal testing

The Three R’s

The principles of the 3R’s, Replacement, Reduction, and Refinement, were developed over 50 years ago as a framework for more ‘humane’ animal research. Replacement means using methods which avoid or replace the use of animals, through modelling and alternate tools. Reduction is to minimise the number of animals used per experiment. Refinement means to minimise animal suffering and improve welfare [7].

Australian Laws

Australia has no national collection or collation system in place meaning the number of animals used in laboratories and classrooms is unknown. Humane Research Australia collate what they can but have found that even at a “state/territory level, there are lengthy delays in reporting, extremely inconsistent collection and reporting methods between jurisdictions and institutions, and some states and territories don’t even collect statistics at all” [8]. They estimated that in 2017, over 20 million animals were used [8].

The Australian Code of Practice for the Care and Use of Animals for Scientific Purposes (the Code) governs how animals used in research must be treated [9]. The Code is enforced at state and territory level and requires that any animal testing must be valid, humane, and justifiable. Research can be justified if it has the potential to benefit humans, animals, or the environment, has scientific or educational merit, or is essential to achieve “aims”. The use of animal testing is so entrenched in medical and scientific research that researchers are easily able to argue that such testing is ‘justifiable’ because that is the way it has always been done. Australian standards also use the three R’s [9].

The Code requires all research involving animals to be approved by an Animal Ethics Committee, which must include an animal welfare representative. Unfortunately, this sole voice for the animals is in the minority against pro-vivisection committee members. Animal welfare representatives have been known to have been removed from committees for objecting too much to research on ethical grounds.

Australia’s ban on cosmetic testing

From July 1, 2020, a ban commenced in Australia which means that new cosmetic ingredients manufactured in, or imported into Australia will not be able to use information from animal testing to prove safety [10]. While this seems like a wonderful step forward, there is a significant loophole in the ban – only chemicals intended for use in cosmetics will be affected, with chemicals in household cleaning products which are found in many cosmetics not being impacted by the new legislation [11]. It also means that companies can say they are testing a pain product, for example, and then use that data for cosmetics.

Types of Research

There are two main types of research, basic and applied.

Basic ‘Biomedical Research’

Basic or “fundamental” research is designed to answer scientific questions that researchers speculate may be useful in the future. It is often an investigation of biology and human diseases. These studies are typically carried out by universities and almost all fail to present anything “beneficial”. According to Cruelty Free International, just 5% resulted in approved treatments over 20 years [12].

The three main forms of basic research include genetic engineering, physiological research, and psychological research.

Genetically Engineered Animals

Genetic engineering refers to the method of manipulating animal genes to remove specific genes or introduce new genes. An animal whose genetic makeup has been modified through genetic engineering is called a transgenic animal [13]. Mice, rats, rabbits, and pigs are the most common animals used in genetic engineering [13]. This is predominately done for medical research, xenotransplantation, agriculture, pharming, and cloning. 

Medical research is where animals are bred with debilitating diseases that cause extreme suffering and pain, in order to be studied or experimented upon. Some of the diseases bred into research mice include diabetes, cancer, cystic fibrosis, and Alzheimer’s disease [14]. 

cancer in mice
A mouse carrying a cancer patient’s tumor graft under its skin.
Credit: Patrick Semansky/AP

Xenotransplantation is where animals are used to ‘grow’ a human organ, which is then transplanted into a human. Despite primates having a more similar genetic makeup to humans, pigs are used to grow organs for people as they are “cheaper”, not protected, and thus more disposable [15].

Agriculture predominately involves breeding animals for consumption to grow faster and bigger, increasing feed conversion (less food to grow larger), and even producing “more desirable traits”, such as in carcass characteristics, or growing extra skin and wool in Merino sheep [16]. Dairy cows around the world have been injected with bovine growth hormone (BGH) to increase milk production. BGH is associated with udder disease, shortened lifespan and crippling of the legs [17]. 

broiler chicken growth
Agricultural research – growth of broiler chickens
Credit: Poultry Science

Pharming is where animals are modified to produce various proteins for pharmaceutical use. For example, goats have been genetically altered to have a spider gene, that causes them to lactate silk in their milk [18].

Cloning is where an animal’s genetic material is replicated to produce an (almost) exact copy [19]. Cloning can be done by embryo splitting and nuclear transfer to produce genetically identical individuals [20]. Chinese scientists cloned 5 monkeys, and all showed signs of “negative behaviour”, including sleep disorders, as well as elevated levels of anxiety, hormonal disorders, depression and schizophrenia-like behaviours [21].

Credit: China Daily via Reuters

Other experiments include making fish, rats, rabbits, and cats glow, by adding a protein from jellyfish into their genes [22, 23].

Physiological research

Physiological research involves studying the internal physical and chemical functions in an animal, from reproduction to disease and nutrition. It explores the way the body operates in terms of the organ functioning, cells, tissues, and biomolecules systems [24]. This can be from seeing how one part of the brain impacts other bodily functions to damaging or removing a part of the body to assess the impacts [25].

Psychological research.

Psychological research studies the behaviours of animals. These tests often study the brain and try to help answer questions about overall functioning and the affect of certain elements [26]. Many of the tests involve making the animals addicted to drugs, anxiety disorders, phobias, urinary incontinence, ruminative vomiting, depression, retrograde amnesia, schizophrenia [27]. Some examples of tests involve forcing animals to take drugs, isolating them, giving them electric shocks to induce fighting behaviour, food deprivation, and brain damage.

Farmed animals are subjected to a range of behavioural experiments in an attempt to make the industry more profitable. Experiments assess confinement and space, impacts of isolation, how much food, water, warmth, light is needed, and if gender impacts their behaviour [28]. 

“I used to conduct research with animals. I believe that much of the pain I inflicted on animals was not justified by the value of the data.”

Anonymous researcher [29]

Applied Research

Applied research on animals involves testing the efficacy of drugs and chemicals to assess, toxicity levels and the impacts of ingredients, to give a safety rating [2]. This includes testing anything from medicines to paints, dyes, ink, solvents, make-up, cleaning products, and hair products to tar. 

rabbit animal testing
Credit: PETA

During these experiments, animals are forced to eat or inhale substances or have them rubbed into their eyes, skin, or injected into their bodies. The animals are then monitored and subjected to further testing to assess the results. Most are killed so researchers can see if the ingredients had any impacts on their tissues and organs [30]. The purpose of these tests is to assess any eye irritancy, acute toxicity, repeated dose toxicity, skin corrosivity/irritation, skin sensitization, dermal penetration, mutagenicity, carcinogenicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity, ecotoxicity, and pyrogenicity [31].

beagle animal testing
Credit: Beagle Freedom Project

Baboons Escape in Sydney

In February 2020, a 15-year-old male and two females escaped in the car park of the Royal Prince Alfred hospital. The baboons are part of the national baboon colony at Wallacia, which supplies baboons for scientific testing. The male was said to be scheduled for a vasectomy at the hospital before he escaped. Their fleeting moments of freedom raised attention to the fact that animals like monkeys, are being tested on in Australia.

Humane Research Australia compiled published studies and found that the baboons have been used for the testing of radioactive material on four baboons; a blood pressure study involving 109 baboons as part of research into the effects of hypertension in pregnancy; a study involving nine baboons where researchers attempted to induce preeclampsia, which resulted in the death of one mother and one baby baboon; and a study on shoulder injuries which involved the surgical cutting of the shoulder tendons of eight baboons that were then euthanised to allow post-mortem study of the healing process; and one of the most controversial studies, which involved the transplant of pig organs into baboons [32].

baboons escape Sydney
The baboons running free.


Dissection involves dismembering the body of a deceased animal, to gain an understanding of its anatomical structure. While it means the experiments are not conducted on live animals, it still contributes to the breeding and death of millions of animals every year. Most commonly, whole fetal pigs, rats, rabbits, birds, cats and aquatic species are used, and parts of cows, sheep, and bulls, such as the eyes, lungs, and testicles [33]. This historic practice was incorporated in school curriculum in the 1920’s, and has no added benefits to current student learning. An increasing amount of educators, researchers, philosophers and students have questioned the validity and ethics of this practice.

“We seem to now teach anatomy in exactly the same way that it was being taught at the end of the dark ages. Specifically, students look at bodies of animals, but are not encouraged in any way to make real observations. Instead, they are encouraged to look for what is already known and then if it does not look quite right, do depict it the way it ‘should’ look.”

Rob Dunn (2013)
dissection fetal pig
Fetal pig
Credit: The Pig Lab

Dissection has more than just ethical costs

An animal can only be dissected once, meaning that new animals must be bought every time. According to HRA, substituting dissection for technological programs or 3-D models can result in savings that exceed thousands of dollars. While the cost of setting up such a system may, initially, exceed the prior costs of dissection, it will eventually reap financial benefits over time [34]. 

kittens dissection
Credit: Jo Anne McArthur – We Animals

Welfare Issues

All animals used in experiments experience suffering and pain. Animals in laboratories are subjected to stressors and abused in the name of science.
Animals are starved, confined, isolated, frightened, denied their natural behaviours, bred to have debilitating diseases (e.g cancer, diabetes, and cystic fibrosis), given electric shocks, are doused in chemicals, have their spinal cords and brains damaged, skin burnt off, are blinded, prodded, injected, given drug addictions, and operated on, all while fully conscious [35, 36]. 

Credit: China Daily via Reuters

The University of Western Australia, Monash University, the University of Technology Sydney and University of Melbourne all conducted experiments causing taumatic brain injury (TBI) in rats and mice by dropping weights, or via invasive procedures to create fluid in the brain, in an attempt to replicate the human condition [37].

Farmed Animals

If we look at farmed animals, we can see that the years of genetic modification have caused a range of health issues and deformities. Turkeys and chickens grow so large that their internal organs and legs are unable to support their bodies, causing broken bones and death. Turkeys are unable to mate naturally due to their physical size. Breeder flocks in broiler chickens are kept in a constant state of hunger to prevent them from growing too big, allowing them to mate naturally. Sheep require humans to sheer them, when naturally they would shed in summer months. Fish on farms are commonly deformed and ill. You can read about these issues in our Conscious Consumer guide.

turkey artificial insemination
Credit: IMV Technologies


Cloned mice have been found to become obese, with related symptoms such as raised plasma insulin and leptin levels, however, these characteristics are not found in their offspring. Dolly, was cloned sheep from the cell of a 6-year old sheep. She was one of 277 attempts, and suffered from rapid aging, developing arthritis and pulmonary adenomatosis (a virus-induced lung tumour) and was killed at just 6 and a half years old. Naturally, sheep can live for 12+ years [38].

More information and Exposés

Cruelty Free International, have released various exposés of the abuse in laboratories around the world [39]. PETA have also been campaigning against animal experimentation for years. Here are some of the experiments they have exposed.

The Animal People, a documentary produced by Joaquin Phoenix, is a true story about animal rights activists who used public protests and a fledgling internet to campaign against the world’s largest animal-testing lab, but rather than the government stepping in to protect the animals, it lead government surveillance, re-written laws, and indictments for domestic terrorism. You can now watch the documentary on Netflix.

After Testing

After an experiment is completed, animals are either kept for future experiments (which means further pain and suffering) or disposed of, meaning killed.

Does Animal Testing Work?

The use of animals in experiments is not only cruel but also ineffective and unreliable [2]. The FDA reports that just 8% of drugs that pass tests on nonhuman animals also supposedly work on humans – meaning 92% of drugs approved for testing in humans fail to receive approval for human use [40].

Aysha Akhtar, M.D., M.P.H., a neurologist and preventive medicine specialist, conducted an analysis on animal experimentation and found that despite animals being in many respects biologically and psychologically similar to humans, there are “critically important physiological and genetic differences between humans and other animals can invalidate the use of animals to study human diseases, treatments, pharmaceuticals, and the like” [2].

It is possible, that animal research is more costly and harmful, on the whole, than it is beneficial to human health. When considering the ethical justifiability of animal experiments, we should ask if it is ethically acceptable to deprive humans of resources, opportunity, hope, and even their lives by seeking answers in what may be the wrong place. In my view, it would be better to direct resources away from animal experimentation and into developing more accurate, human-based technologies.

Aysha Akhtar [2]

What are the Alternatives?

Vivisection Alternatives

While humans are animals, we are biologically different and results from animals are not transferred to us. In experiments where animals are artificially given a disease or illness, with the attempt to cure them, the results are affected by the laboratory environment and other variables, the disparities between animal and human diseases, and differences in physiology and genetics [2].  Alternatives include:

  • using human tissue, cells and organs that are grown in laboratories, medical waste such as discarded placentas and adult stem cells, and research through autopsies
  • using mechanical models and simulators
  • epidemiology: the study of disease within a given population, to examine how a disease behaves, identify its causes and collect information crucial for its management and prevention
  • human volunteers participating in controlled studies and clinical trials.

[41, 42, 43, 44]

Dissection Alternatives

Maintaining and encouraging the idea that animals are just tools in the learning system, has the danger of inculcating in students detachment and apathy towards animals. Dissection is not mandatory in Australia, and students must be given an alternate activity that allows them to achieve the same outcome [45]. Human Research Australia has provided a list of alternatives for students and teachers here.

alternative to animal testing
Credit: NAVS – Advance Science Without Animal Testing

International Changes

Around the world, animal dissection has been banned in:

  • Argentina, 1987: Dissection was banned from being performed in schools.
  • Italy: In 1992, a number of Italian laboratory workers campaigned for the law to recognise the legal right of conscientious objection, resulting in Italian Law 413, the first law of it’s kind in permitting workers to refuse to be associated with any action involving animal experimentation. Since 2005 three-quarters of Italian universities have discontinued using live animals for educational experiments. Thus, Italian law granted the right of conscientious objection in 1993.
  • Slovakia, 1995: Dissection was banned from being performed in all primary and secondary schools.
  • India, 1996: the High Court of Delhi bans animal dissection.
  • Israel, 1999: Minister for Education Yossi Sarid announces a ban on the experimentation on animals in schools, citing the development of ‘virtual’ methods of teaching anatomy that make dissection unnecessary.

Issues for consumers

As a consumer, you may not know that the products you are buying have contributed to animals being tested on. Companies know that there has been a rise in consumers being against animal testing and have come up with clever marketing strategies to trick the conscientious consumer into believing their products are cruelty-free. These include:

  • labelling that states the product is not tested on animals. This can often mean that the end product is not tested on animals, but the individual ingredients of the product are. Some even use a false “cruelty-free” symbol;
  • using the phrase ‘we don’t test on animals’, while outsourcing the testing to others;
  • Not testing all products on animals, but testing for products that are being sent to China. China has made it mandatory for all products to be tested on, so companies test some products so that they can continue to sell to them;
  • not testing products on animals, but continuing to use animal-derived products as ingredients.

What Can I Do?

As a consumer, there are a few things you can do to help animals who are being tested on.

  1. Looking for the “cruelty-free” symbol or “vegan” on products or downloading the Choose Cruelty-Free app, which provides an updated list of animal-friendly brands.
  2. Support the work of Humane Research Australia and Cruelty Free International – who are constantly fighting for the end of animal testing.
  3. Support us, who are raising awareness about the issues of animal testing and are a voice for all animals.

To get started on purchasing animal-friendly products, check out our blog here.

One Comment

  1. Stop doing unnecessary test on animals!
    Many test are repeated over and over again without taking the time to report the results to other scientists!

    We all know many animals suffer way more than they should and it’s been going on for way too long now, it’s 2020. it’s time to have more compassion and empathy for these sentient beings.

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