Veterans Affairs officials and animal rights activists sparred on Wednesday over a report by an independent panel which said medical testing on dogs conducted by department researchers may be scientifically necessary in some cases.

VA leaders framed the findings as justification for ongoing, limited canine testing regarding cardiac treatments for ailing veterans, work that has drawn significant criticism in recent years.

In a statement, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the findings show that “at this point, canine research is the only viable option for developing and testing certain treatments to improve the quality of life of some seriously disabled veterans.”

But leaders at the White Coat Waste Project, a frequent critic of the VA research, said the report instead shows that the existing testing program is “in need of drastic reforms” and criticized department leaders’ continued defense of the practice.

“Veterans and other taxpayers should not be forced to foot the bill for wasteful and cruel VA dog tests that are opposed by most people and — as is the case with VA’s ongoing dog testing — are outside of the VA’s mission to address veteran-specific ailments,” said Justin Goodman, vice president of advocacy and public policy for the group.

The report, compiled by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, does not offer a clear defense or indictment of the work, but emphasizes that alternatives to live-animal tests should be pursued.

VA officials have said the research has been reduced to only a small number of dogs in recent years, “the absolute minimum required at this time to fulfill its commitment to finding treatments for veterans with life-threatening health conditions.” In 2018, about 80 dogs were used in various studies.

The 16-member committee noted that many VA canine studies lacked “a serious attempt to exclude other species or explore alternatives to the laboratory dogs,” and voiced concerns that department officials seem inclined to support the research regardless of any alternatives.

But the researchers said that current VA practices “appear to adhere to all relevant policies surrounding animal research” and said that social expectations of dogs as pets “does not necessarily constitute a reliable guide to ethical (research) action.”

VA officials said canine research helped lead to the development of the cardiac pacemaker in the 1950s, improved techniques for hip replacement surgery in the 1990s, and a host of other medical advancements.

Lawmakers last year included language in a federal measure requires VA officials to justify use of “any canine, feline, or non-human primate” in medical testing, and to offer a plan by the end of this year to reduce or eliminate all such research by 2025.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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