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Frequently Asked Questions

Why use animals in research?

Thanks to the medical advances of the past century, children no longer die or suffer permanent harm from polio, smallpox, measles, diphtheria, tetanus or whooping cough. In addition, scientists have developed new ways of dealing with other forms of serious illness, such as heart disease and cancer. As a result, most Canadians are living longer, healthier lives.

Before a cure or treatment of a disease can be found, scientists must first understand how the body works. At the University of Toronto, laboratory animals help provide the fundamental knowledge upon which disease prevention and treatment are based.

They are also needed to test the effectiveness and safety of:

  • drugs, such as antibiotics;
  • therapies, such as chemotherapy;
  • devices, such as pacemakers and artificial joints;
  • surgical procedures, such as organ transplants.

Only after these treatments have been proven to work safely on animals can they be tested on humans. In addition, psychological research using animals contributes to better understanding of how the brain works, leading to improved treatment for addictions and other behavioural problems.

Animals also have an important role in efforts to keep our environment safe. At the University of Toronto, for example, fish are used to assess the impact of climate change, the acidification of lakes and the degree of toxic pollution.

Are there alternatives to using animals in research?

Animals are used in research only when absolutely necessary. Under University guidelines, scientists are required to employ non-animal research methods whenever possible.

The use of such methods is growing. Through computer modeling, for example, scientists are beginning to be able to predict how new medications will affect our bodies. And by using cell or tissue cultures, they can identify some of the potentially harmful effects of a new compound.

These new methods reduce the number of animals needed for research, but they do not eliminate the need entirely. Neither computers nor tissue samples can imitate fully the complex interactions found in living organisms. Use of those organisms is necessary if we are to understand the diseases that afflict both humans and animals and to develop effective treatments for them.

So, while non-animal research methods are helpful, a large amount of scientific research still depends on experimentation involving animals.

What kind of external oversight is in place?

University of Toronto researchers must abide by the rules set down by two external agencies:

  • The Government of Ontario which, under the Animals for Research Act, requires that all research facilities meet strict standards for the procurement, housing, and care of animals. There are regular, unannounced inspections. Violation of the government’s standards can lead to closure of the facility.
  • The Canadian Council on Animal Care, an independent, internationally recognized organization that sets comprehensive standards for the use of animals in research. All Canadian research centres must meet these standards in order to obtain and keep support from funding agencies.

The Council’s standards are enforced by the University’s Animal Care Committees, which examine every proposal to use animals in research. Community representatives as well as scientists serve on these Committees. Each proposal must give full details regarding the purpose of the research, the type and number of animals used, the procedures to be followed and the type of anaesthetics and painkillers to be used. Unless an experiment is found by the Committees to be both necessary and humane, it is not allowed to proceed.

Who is responsible for seeing that animals are not abused?

Scientists care about animal lives, as well as human ones. They want to ensure that the animals under their care do not suffer unnecessary pain or trauma.

They are assisted by animal health technicians, who are trained and experienced in animal care, and by the University’s full-time veterinary staff. Their primary responsibility is to ensure the proper care and treatment of the laboratory animals at the University of Toronto.

All new research personnel are required to take a University course on proper animal care, which outlines their legal and ethical responsibilities as well as the principles of humane care.

Where do laboratory animals come from?

The Ontario Animals for Research Act requires that researchers obtain animals only from officially regulated sources. Most of the animals used in research at the University of Toronto are purchased from licensed suppliers. Many of these animals have been bred specially for research purposes.

What types of animals are used at the University of Toronto?

In the University’s 2014 report to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, approximately 140,500 vertebrates were used. 72.3% were rats and mice, followed by fish (22.3%) and amphibians (3.3%). There are currently no non-human primates used in research at the University.

How have we benefited from research using animals?

Virtually every medical advance in the past century has depended on the use of animals in its development. The following is a list of just some of these breakthroughs, a number of which were made at the University of Toronto.

  • Pre-1900
    • Treatment of rabies
    • Treatment of smallpox
  • 1920’s
    • Discovery of insulin (U of T)
  • 1930’s
    • Prevention of tetanus
    • Development of heparin (U of T)
  • 1940’s
    • Treatment of rheumatoid arthritis
    • Prevention of diphtheria
    • Treatment of whooping cough
  • 1950’s
    • Vaccine for poliomyelitis
    • Development of cardiac pacemaker (U of T)
    • Procedure to correct congenital hip dislocation (U of T)
  • 1960’s
    • Prevention of rubella
    • Corneal transplants
    • Surgical correction of blue baby syndrome (U of T)
  • 1970’s
    • Prevention of measles
    • Treatment of leprosy
    • Heart transplants
  • 1980’s
    • Kidney, liver and lung transplants
    • Discovery of T-cell receptor gene (U of T)
    • Nerve transplants (U of T)
    • Cyclosporin and anti-rejection drugs
  • 1990’s-2000’s
    • Work continues on: cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, etc.


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