Animal Experiments: Illogical, Unscientific and Pointless

Dr Vernon Coleman

The following essay is adapted from the book `Betrayal of Trust’ by Vernon Coleman. `Betrayal of Trust was first published in 1994.

One of the key techniques used by pharmaceutical companies in order to get new products onto the market is to perform initial trials on animals other than human beings. Animal experiments offer drug companies an enormous advantage: if an experiment shows that a drug does not harm a particular animal then that experiment can be used to help the drug onto the market. The company will suggest that the absence of any serious problems when the drug was given to an animal shows that the drug will probably be safe when given to human patients.

But, on the other hand, if an experiment shows that a drug causes serious problems when given to an animal the results will be dismissed on the grounds that animal experiments cannot be regarded as relevant to human beings because of the enormous anatomical and physiological differences between, on the one hand, human beings and on the other hand cats, dogs, monkeys, rabbits, rats, mice and other creatures.

Many outside observers who do not fully comprehend the depths of dishonesty to which the drug industry will stoop find it difficult to believe that anyone could get away with such blatant double edged trickery. But this is exactly how drug companies operate.

It is difficult to understand how any medical scientist can possible defend the use of animal experiments as part of a drug testing programme. The usefulness and reliability of animal experiments has been so devalued in recent years that I do not believe that any reputable, independent scientist could possibly attempt to defend the use animal experiments on logical, scientific grounds.

Those who perform and support animal experiment are so embarrassed and ashamed of what they do that they frequently use euphemisms to disguise their activities. It is quite common, for example, for experimenters to talk of animals ‘taking part’ in experiments and ‘helping us with our research’. The word ‘experiment’ has been replaced by the word ‘procedure’, which is less evocative. Experimenters have their own language. Here are just a few choice phrases they use (and their meanings):

vocal response = crying
major airway embarrassment = choking
reacting to adverse stimulation with vigorous motor responses = trying to escape
binocular deprivation = sewing the eyes up
decapitation = head removal
exhibiting lethal behaviour = dying
startle reflex = flinching
aversive electrical stimulation = electric shocks
thermal injury = burn or scald

In unguarded moments even the medical establishment acknowledges that animal experiments are absurdly unreliable. The British Medical Association is, as one would expect it to be, a staunch supporter of animal experimentation. But this stance becomes difficult to understand when one studies the British Medical Association’s book: ‘The BMA Guide to Living With Risk’ (first published in 1987) in which readers are told that: ‘if salt and sugar were being tested as potential food additives today, and if judgement of acceptability was to be based purely on the laboratory and animal testing, it is unlikely that either would be permitted for use in food.’ It is difficult to imagine a simpler or more damning indictment of animal experimentation than to admit that animal experiments are so unreliable that neither salt nor sugar (just two of many other commonly consumed substances which are known to cause serious problems when given to other members of the animal kingdom) would pass safety tests if animal tests were relied upon! Incidentally, many other powerful and important substances – such as the heart drug digoxin and the pain killer morphine – would have failed animal experiment tests and would not therefore be available to us now if the vivisectors had been listened to. Heaven only knows how many other valuable drugs have been lost to medicine because animal experiments falsely suggested that they were highly toxic to human patients).

Lawyers who have studied the evidence for and against the use of animal experiments have been convinced by the argument that animal experiments are so unreliable as to be useless. Consider this quote from the Idaho Law Review:

‘Animal studies have no place in the courtroom. They suffer from inherent and incurable defects that make them entirely unreliable as proof of human response to toxic substances. They fail to account for astonishing differences between animal species and humans; indeed they fail to account for large differences in test results that occur within individual animal species. They rest on unproven assumptions that humans and animals will respond similarly to the same substances and that large doses administered under experimental conditions can be reliably translated into lower doses more commonly encountered in the real world.’

Most convincing of all, however, is the evidence from the drug companies themselves. A vast number of drugs are sold for doctors to prescribe for human patients but are known to cause cancer or other serious problems when given to animals. In my view, if anyone believed that animal experiments were of value then none of these drugs would be on the market. Drug companies argue that they don’t need to stop selling drugs which harm animals because animals are different to people. (There is an extensive list of such drugs in `Betrayal of Trust’).

. With all this evidence available it is difficult to avoid the sad but inevitable conclusion that animal experiments are used because they are financially expedient. Animals are not just relatively cheap to use but there also are clear commercial advantages for the world’s most successful and ruthless industry. The bizarre but inescapable conclusion is that drug companies depend on the fact that animal experiments are unreliable in order to get their new products onto the market without testing them properly. The very unreliability and unpredictably of animal experiments makes them valuable. Drug companies test on animals so that they can say that they have tested their drugs before marketing them. If the tests show that the drugs do not cause serious disorders when given to animals the companies say: ‘There you are! We have tested our drug – and have proved it to be safe!’ If, on the other hand, tests show that a drug does cause serious problems when given to animals the companies say: ‘The animal experiments are, of course, unreliable and cannot be used to predict what will happen when the drug is given to humans. We have, however, tested our drug.’ This double edged absurdity, which only works because of the enormous influence which the pharmaceutical industry holds over governments and regulatory authorities, and which would sound like a nightmare conjured up by a paranoid lunatic if it were not so easily proved, means that the industry never loses and patients never win.

In order to disguise the real (commercial) reasons for performing animal experiments drug companies will sometimes claim that they don’t like doing animal experiments but do them because they are required to do so by the law. This is not true. There are, for example, no laws in Britain requiring animal experiments to be performed during drug testing. Drug companies say that they are required to perform animal experiments by the law. Government spokesmen say that it is drug companies who choose to do animal experiments in order to test the safety of their drugs.

When the drug company Roussel, one of the biggest in Europe, was taken to court by the British Government because of advertisement claims for an anti-arthritis drug called Surgam, the company, which had claimed in advertisements published in the British Medical Journal that the drug was gentle on the stomach was asked to produce the evidence for this claim. The only evidence Roussel produced was from experimental studies on two animal tissues (neither of which were stomach tissue) which they had combined in order to support their claim. Even the expert witnesses called by Roussel in its defence testified that data from animals could not be extrapolated safely to patients.

You might imagine that after this fiasco drug companies would be wary about making claims (either for efficacy or safety) based on animal experiments. You would be wrong. Nothing has changed. And medical journals still allow drug companies to publish advertisements for drugs which have been tested on animals. I know of no medical journal editor who has refused to accept advertisements for products which have been tested on animals. (For the record The European Medical Journal, which I edit, carries no drug company advertising at all – and, indeed, accepts no paid advertising of any kind).

Scientists outside the pharmaceutical industry support this sham for several reasons. First, of course, animal experiments have now been used for so long and by so many scientists that thousands of reputations would be irrevocably shattered if it were accepted by the research industry that the work they have been doing for so many years was fatally flawed. Second, it is remarkably quick and simple to plan, research and write and publish scientific papers if you are using animals. Decent and useful research, involving human patients, is much harder to organise – and since most of the medical scientists using animals in experiments are not medically qualified most of them would not, in any case, be allowed to perform any sort of clinical research. Prolific publishing (usually accompanied by optimistic conclusions about the value of the research) is the best way to ensure a steady income from grants. It is the quantity not the quality of research which governs the financial results. The charities which pay for much of the animal research done want to be able to fill their annual reports with impressive and optimistic accounts of research in progress.

The second rate scientists who perform animal experiments outside the pharmaceutical industry are undoubtedly grateful to the industry for creating and maintaining the myths which support the milieu in which they work. And the industry in turn, recognising that the fact that universities still perform animal experiments supports the validity of THEIR work is also grateful: often commissioning highly paid research work from `independent’ scientists in universities and colleges. In some universities whole departments are financed exclusively by the drug industry. The myth that animal experiments are of value to doctors and patients is sustained because the vast majority of doctors – the only people who could expose the absurd rigmarole for the sham that it is – are either uninterested in how drugs are tested (and apathetic about the dishonesty involved) or are so beholden to the industry that they are unwilling or unable to criticise it. The vast majority of the thousands of medical journals in existence rely to a greater or lesser extent on drug industry advertising to stay alive and so the editors of these journals are reluctant to publish anything critical of any aspect of the system as it operates.

Articles criticising the drug industry, the way drugs are tested or the use of animal experiments are rare. The existence of so many medical journals, largely sustained by drug company advertising, means that there is a steady and constant demand for new scientific papers. And so the whole system is self-supporting. The industry needs to publish research papers in order to satisfy the regulatory authorities and to convince possibly sceptical doctors that their products have been well tested and proven to be both efficacious and safe. Independent researchers need to publish papers in order to provide the charities which fund their work with evidence with which to impress their subscribers and donors. And the journals need articles to publish.

Those who perform and defend animal experiments sometimes try to explain away the differences which exist between the results obtained when drugs are given to animals and when drugs are given to human beings by claiming that the dosages used when giving drugs to animals are too high. Strangely, they never bother to explain why they deliberately make the dosages they give so high as to be of no value. The truth is that no one does know how much of a drug to give to an animal in the hope of obtaining results which might be relevant to an animal (a human being) weighing a hundred or a thousand times as much and having entirely different physiological and anatomical systems.

The differences in results obtained when giving drugs to children and adults is so vast that paediatricians frequently complain when drug companies fail to perform special trials on children. Similarly, all good physicians know that adult human beings of different sizes and different ages may respond in different ways to the same drug. (There is something quite absurd about giving a 7 stone woman and a 20 stone man exactly the same dose of an antibiotic for example). Many drug companies now warn prescribers that special dosage rules must be followed when giving drugs to elderly patients.

It should, therefore, be clear to anyone with any knowledge of physiology that the only possible argument for trying out drugs on animals is in the hope that the tests will show signs of toxicity. However, even this hope is dashed because there is a huge amount of evidence available to show that animals frequently react quite differently to human beings when given drugs. A cat can’t be expected to react the same way as a dog or a sheep or a cow or a mouse or a guinea pig or a rat or a human being when given a drug. Of course, the simple law of averages means that occasionally there will be results which seem of value – but how is anyone supposed to know which results to take notice of and which to ignore? Most doctors, even many who support vivisection, will confirm that animal experiments can be misleading. After the European Medical Journal published a survey showing that 88% of doctors agreed that animal experiments can be misleading because of anatomical and physiological differences between animals and humans the editor of the British Medical Journal wrote to say that he felt that most doctors would agree with the phrase that `laboratory experiments performed on animals can be misleading because of anatomical and physiological differences between animals and humans’. The Dean of Medicine at the University of Southampton expressed his surprise that the survey did not find that 100% of the doctors who took part in the survey believed that animal experiments could be misleading. The problem, of course, is that no doctor can tell you which animal experiments are going to be most misleading.

If you test a drug on eight species of animal and the drug turns out to cause cancer in two of those animals, to cause liver problems in another two, to cause blindness in two more and to be quite safe in a final pair should you accept the results from the two that develop cancer, the two who develop liver problems, the two who become blind or the two who remain well?

In practice, of course, no one knows which results to accept and which to ignore and so all the results are ignored (as shown by the number of drugs currently freely available for doctors to prescribe which are known to cause serious problems in animals). The absurdity of the whole business of giving drugs to animals, and expecting to obtain useful results, is taken even further away from logic and practicality by the knowledge that animals in cages behave quite differently to animals in the wild and the understanding that since diet, exercise patterns and genetics all have significant effects on the way human beings respond to disease and drug therapy it is likely that these, or other influences, may also affect animals when they are given drugs.

If we don’t know which (if any) animal experiments are relevant then there is no point in doing any of them.

The essay above is taken from the book `Betrayal of Trust’ by Vernon Coleman. `Betrayal of Trust’ has been republished and can be purchased via the bookshop on

The bookshop on contains direct links to all of Vernon Coleman’s books.

Copyright Vernon Coleman March 2024