Animal Welfare Information Center Newsletter, Winter 1996/1997, Vol. 7 No. 3-4 *************************

Adoption of Research Animals

Larry Carbone, D.V.M., M.A.
New York State College of Veterinary Medicine
Center for Research Animal Resources
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

Photo:  Man with two adopted dogs.  Photo by Alexis Wenski-Roberts Estimates of actual numbers of research animals used in the country vary, but one thing is obvious to most of us working in research facilities: the vast majority of these animals are euthanized when their usefulness has ended. Euthanasia is intrinsic to some projects. For example, many projects, especially those using the smaller laboratory animals, require the euthanasia of the animal for tissue collection. Other projects may lead to illness or disease conditions for which euthanasia is the most humane treatment. Often, however, animals finish a research project in good health and yet may not be suitable for any other research projects at the institution. There may be overstock from a breeding colony, with no research use for some of the young animals produced. In these circumstances, people will naturally consider the possibility of finding adoptive homes for the animals.

It seems that research workers, especially the technicians, students, and veterinarians who work most directly with the animals, have a real emotional need to see some animals escape the system, to break free of the research laboratory. If we defend animal research by claiming that we only use, harm, or kill research animals when necessary, then it follows that we will want to do our best to ensure good lives for those animals whose sacrifice is not required by our science. Arnold Arluke has described the tendency of laboratory workers to occasionally single out individual animals as laboratory pets, animals who stay in the research facility, but are elevated in status, treated as individual companions, and spared use in experimentation, if possible (Arluke 1993).

Recently, Jan Wyrich has described the adoption program for research animals at the University of California, San Francisco (Wyrich 1996). She observes that an adoption program can decrease stress and raise morale for both the research and the animal care teams and bring both groups to a greater mutual appreciation in the process.

Why discuss adoption in a newsletter devoted primarily to alternatives and the three Rs of replacement, refinement, and reduction? Adoption typically happens after a research project ends and does not obviously affect the numbers of animals used; it does not result in their replacement with nonsentient alternatives. Both the Animal Welfare Act regulations and the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals are silent on the topic. Adoption programs may count as refinements, alternative endings to the story. Most people working in research laboratories see the value of humane and painless euthanasia for animals who are suffering. They may accept that healthy animals must often be killed in the course of a study. Killing healthy animals when there is no research need, however, feels wrong to many of us, especially when a viable adoptive home is available.

Adoption considerations need not happen only after termination of a project. More and more I see researchers designing projects with adoption in mind, choosing experimental endpoints and final data collection with the dual goals of valid data and a group of young, healthy animals ready for adoption. They may hire student workers to help socialize the animals and start to spread the word among the staff early in the project that a particular group of animals will be available for adoption. As more data are collected on the success or failure of different programs, researchers may base their choice of animal breed, age, sex or housing in part on considerations of adoptability.

Some people may resist the idea of adoption. They will point to the fact that these animals are not pets, they were bred for research, as if that fact alone should dictate their fates after the research has ended. Perhaps in our drive to give research animals the best possible lives, we are uncomfortable admitting that life in a laboratory for many species is still a pale comparison to life with a loving family. Adoption programs also undermine any complacency we may have that euthanasia, competently and painlessly performed, is no real harm or injustice to the animals. And adoption programs carry heavy costs, both in money and labor, that someone at the institution must bear.

Photo:  Man with two adopted dogs.  Photo by Alexis Wenski-Roberts Virtually any species of research animal may be considered for adoption. With dogs and cats in particular, adoption may be driven by the research and animal care teams, which know that animals that are no longer needed for their project are healthy and of good temperament. In these cases, the staff may actively search for adoptive homes for the animals, spreading the information by word of mouth, posters, or e-mail. Potential owners may be on-campus staff or students or off-campus. Some breeding colonies will even maintain a waiting list of potential homes.

With other species of animals, the more usual adoption route seems to be that an individual worker or student becomes attached to a particular animal and wants to take it home. Individual rats, rabbits, frogs, goats, or various other animals may be selected for adoption even when there is no drive to find homes for every animal on the project. When this happens, seemingly more adoptable animals may be left behind while the quirky individual-- the sickly one, the runt, the escape artist, the "talker"-- finds a new home.

Sharon Matter has reviewed some of the many arguments for and against the adoption of research animals (Matter 1996). Human health and safety are major concerns, and with them, institutional liability if the adopter gets sick or injured. Most snakes, frogs, and other ectotherms are Salmonella suspects, even if there has been no positive culture. Many dogs carry ascarids, Giardia, and other potentially zoonotic infections. Dogs, cats, or other animals may bite their adoptive owner or children in the house. Institutions need to devise ways to minimize risks, to inform new owners of persistent risks, and to discourage legal action should human illness or injury occur. Signed release forms are part of this effort, though they have limited legal standing in most States.

It is impossible to reduce risk to zero. No live animal can be guaranteed not to bite or scratch. Finances will limit the number of zoonotic infections that can be screened for, and the screening tests themselves have limited sensitivity. Institutions need to decide what level of risk is acceptable and how to inform owners explicitly of potential problems.

A visible adoption program can broadcast the message that the institution conducts animal research. It is difficult to maintain a closed-door policy or to tightly monitor public relations when research animals are at large in the community. "I had no idea your university uses so many dogs," is the sort of statement we may not want to hear. However, if the person saying that is driving home with her healthy new pet, that may be just the public relations effort research institutions need. Students, technicians, and others who see healthy animals euthanized when the administration forbids adoption will feel little compunction to keep their disapproval to themselves for long.

Running an adoption program is time consuming and costly, as our Nation's animal shelters can attest. A research institution may feel more pressure than would a humane shelter to run diagnostic testing for zoonotic infections, to fully vaccinate adoptive research animals, and to spay or neuter them. There may be interviews with the potential adopters to ensure that the animal is going to a good home. The University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) estimates an average of almost $300 per animal in staff time and supplies is spent preparing animals for transfer to local humane shelters for adoption (Wyrich 1996b). In describing an adoption program for University of Pennsylvania beagles, Harry Ake details a program with heavy time demands on laboratory animal veterinarians, interviewing potential adopters, filling out paperwork, and examining the dogs (Ake 1996). Some of these duties can be delegated to technicians, students, or even volunteers; others, such as rabies vaccination, surgical neutering, and health certificates, cannot.

Animal welfare questions are a top concern. How well does a dog that has been kenneled all her life adapt to life in a home? Can the institution effectively screen potential homes? Do we really even know what makes a good adoptive home? What will become of animals if the adoption fails? A research institution's adoption program can potentially compete with neighboring animal shelters' programs. Some animal protectionists have argued against research animal adoption, at least while shelters are over-burdened with adoptable animals, and for the way it assuages our consciences, as researchers, about killing animals. With this avenue for guilt avoidance, the pressure to truly reduce the numbers of animals we use in laboratories may be lessened.

Adoption programs vary. UCSF has an active and conscientious program that is unusual in its close association with local cooperating humane shelters (Wyrich 1996). As an alternative to direct adoption, most UCSF animals are sent to one of two local shelters for adoption. Most institutions seem to restrict themselves to direct adoption with no such middle man. A recent survey of Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) policies revealed that only 20 percent of institutions surveyed report allowing any of their research animals to be adopted (Borkowski 1995). I do wonder how many animal adoptions happen at the other 80 percent, unbeknownst to the officials running the IACUC and responding to the survey.

Unfortunately, all this work is done with little data to support specific policy recommendations. Wyrich describes the UCSF adoption program as successful, but does not provide her criteria for this assessment. Over 500 animals have found adoptive homes since 1982, with no major repercussions to the university (Wyrich 1996). That certainly sounds successful, but offers little guidance on which aspects of the program explain this success. At an average cost of $300 per adoption, one wonders whether a program at half that cost could be equally successful.

Harry Ake answers more specific questions in his follow-up survey of beagle adoptions from the University of Pennsylvania. Ake tabulates adopters' assessments of their feelings about their new dogs and whether they would recommend similar adoptions to others (Ake 1996). House-breaking stands out as a key issue for pet adopters in this survey. We have a similar adoption follow-up survey in progress at Cornell University with a more heterogeneous population of dogs. Our preliminary data reveal a similar concern among owners for house-soiling beagles, unfortunately, performing worse in this category than either golden or Labrador retrievers. This breed difference in behavior has been identified in the general pet population as well (Hart and Miller 1985). The age at adoption also seems to influence a dog's chance of remaining with his or her adoptive owners in our own survey and in Patronek's survey of risk factors for surrender of animals to humane shelters (Patronek 1995).

In both the Cornell and University of Pennsylvania surveys, over 80 percent of dogs were still with their adoptive owners several months after adoption (of course, neither survey had a 100-percent response rate). Is 80 percent a good success rate? Currently, there are few comparative data on the success of adoption of animals from other sources such as pet stores or shelters.

Owner satisfaction varies as much with the owner as with the animal. I know of one veterinary student, for instance, who crated her 9-year-old adoptive laboratory beagle for over a year before she could trust her loose in the house without soiling. But she loved her little beagle, her Newfoundland played with it, as did her adopted research cat, and the foursome made for a happy household. Other owners would not have tolerated such a long housebreaking period and would have reported an unsuccessful or short-lived adoption.

Neither our Cornell survey nor Ake's Pennsylvania survey have identified owner characteristics or behaviors that are predictive of successful adoption. Ake and Matter discuss screening or interviewing potential owners but give no criteria. Again, data are sparse. Surveys at Purdue of people surrendering animals to shelters suggest that certain owner behaviors such as taking a new dog to obedience training or to a veterinarian are in some way associated with higher numbers of owners retaining their adopted or purchased dogs (Patronek 1995). I have worried that owners who adopt research animals under pressure to save the animal's life would not make strong and lasting bonds; these fears have so far not been confirmed.

In conducting these surveys, we do not hope to distinguish successful from unsuccessful adoptions or to formulate a blanket policy for or against the practice. Rather, we hope that adoption is a policy that institutions will consider and that we can identify potential problems to be remedied and strategies to be used. As more data are gathered, we will be able to generate a profile of the ideal adoption candidate. We also hope to counsel and support owners and their pets during the early months of home life while the family bond develops.

For institutions that are thinking about allowing adoptions, here are some considerations:

1) Legal and administrative. Institutional attorneys should help to draft a good release form that the new owner signs. Animals are adopted as is, with no guarantee that they are housebroken, will stay healthy, or are not carrying some potentially zoonotic infections. Proper documentation and USDA forms must be filed.

Decide on what sort of follow-up support you are willing and able to give such as behavior consultations, vaccines and veterinary advice, or taking the animal back if the adoption is unsuccessful. Often the adoption process is driven by the most junior staff and students. Faculty and the administration may be permissive but not highly supportive. Senior level administration must be aware and in support of the program, as there will inevitably be problems that they must deal with. Staff time, husbandry supplies, and diagnostic testing take resources as the adoption program grows. The level of commitment the institution has to the adoption program will determine where these resources come from and how carefully animals are screened before they leave the institution.

2) Choose the animals carefully. Hard luck cases have enormous appeal to some people and may be appropriate for some carefully selected owners. Animals with visible defects that are retired from surgical projects, for instance, are conspicuous reminders of their research or teaching origins. Will the new owner explain this to others in a way that your institution finds acceptable? Animals on infectious disease studies, especially with zoonotic infections, are rarely acceptable adoption candidates. Large dogs of questionable temperament are not good adoption candidates. My preference is that food animal species be retired as pets, not as breeders or meat. Few of the drugs and anesthetics they will have received have been cleared for use in animals intended for human consumption. Agriculture programs that raise animals for research and sale are the exception to this rule, but antibody-production rabbits and goats or fetal-catheterization sheep, for instance, should be retired only as pets.

3) Work with local humane societies. You may not have direct cooperation with your local shelter, but they should know about your program. Many research animals are tattooed. These animals may find their way to the local shelter either as lost animals or as unsuccessful adoptions. The shelter will want to contact someone at the institution with the tattoo number and get complete information on the animal's history. This also gives the institution some feedback on their adoption policy.

4) Practice the Three R's. Institutions can reduce the number of surplus animals in need of homes by coordinating different lab groups for tissue collection and by planning breeding colonies to meet research demands without overproduction. A well-coordinated and well-informed laboratory animal resources department can help balance two potentially competing goals: conservation by channeling animals from one project to another (typically, terminal) project versus placing animals in adoptive homes. Training and socialization are further refinements that can help dogs and cats thrive in the laboratory and in adoptive homes. Survey data show that if the laboratory dog is house-broken while at the institution, the adoption is more likely to be satisfactory and long-lasting. Volunteers might be employed to teach dogs who are available for adoption some basic house manners.

5) Expect problems. Dogs may bite. Cats may hide under a couch for a year. Families may develop infections, and the physician suspects their pet. Animals may become ill shortly after adoption. Animals with behavior problems may end up at the local shelter. You are working to minimize the risk of unsuccessful adoption; you can only eliminate it by banning adoption altogether. Even then, problems are not entirely eradicated, as clever staff will find ways to slip their favorite animals out the back door with a wink and a nod, and a note in the record that the puppy was euthanized.

6) Follow up on adoptions. Thorough surveys are time-consuming research projects that not every institution will want to conduct. Data are sorely lacking to guide refinement of adoption programs, however, and more information is needed. If the institution does not actively solicit information on adoption success, only the failures will be known, whether they are brought back to the institution or surrendered to a local shelter. The successful adoptions remain invisible to the institution in most cases, even though they appear to predominate by a healthy margin.

Adoption programs for research animals can boost employee morale, enhance public relations, and most importantly, give research animals a chance to find a loving home. They do require work, time, and money. If institutions put some of the time, energy, and resources into disposition of their animals that they typically put into animal acquisition, a program that benefits everyone can be developed.


This article appeared in the Animal Welfare Information Center Newsletter, Volume 7, Number 3-4, Winter 1996/1997

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