Ethical Treatment of Animals

Ethical treatment of animals is the concept that morally right or acceptable behavior is obtainable when interacting with other species. Treatment of animals for scientific purposes has been controversal and often at odds with what is deemed ethical.


For centuries, vivisection—the dissection of live animals—was used in physiological studies. It was not until 1876 that an anti-vivisection campaign led by Frances Power Cobbe (1822–1904) and her Victoria Street Society forced the British Parliament to pass the first Cruelty to Animals Act. Inspired by Cobbe, Caroline Early White (1833–1916) and Mary Frances Lovell founded the American Anti-Vivisection Society (AAVS) in Philadelphia in 1883. Its original goal was to regulate the use of animals in science and society, but the AAVS soon focused on the complete abolishment of vivisection.

Many countries have laws governing the use and treatment of research animals. However, the 1966 Animal Welfare Act (AWA) in the United States excludes most mice, rats, birds, and fish bred for research, which account for 98% of laboratory animals. The AAVS lobbies for the inclusion of these animals under minimal care and treatment regulations, as well as the replacement of animal furs with fake furs and alternatives to animal testing of cosmetics.

Most research institutions have an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) or equivalent that is responsible for the treatment of animals within that facility. Scientific journals have imposed ethical manuscript reviews, and research funding proposals require statements that ethical guidelines will be followed. Professional organizations also have guidelines for the ethical treatment of research animals.

As of 2015, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) was the most active animal-rights organization in the United States and internationally. PETA advocates not only the for abolishment of all research use of animals, but also for the elimination of animal use for food, clothing, and entertainment.

Animals in psychology

The American Psychological Association's nonbinding guidelines for research animals are typical.

Animal behavior (ethology) research

The ethical guidelines of the International Society for Applied Ethology (ISAE) apply to conference organizers, scientific reviewers, and ethics committees, as well as researchers. They call for cost-benefit analyses to ensure that any physical or psychological harm to animals is outweighed by benefits of the research to humans, nonhuman animals, or the environment, with the costs minimized and the benefits maximized. The three Rs for reducing costs are:

The ISAE stresses that legal and commercial methods for killing animals may not be considered euthanasia, given that euthanasia implies an easy, painless death.

Recent developments

Scientists, activists, and animal lovers all question earlier assumptions that animals do not experience pain, suffering, and a wide range of emotions. Research indicates that many animals are far more sentient than previously believed. An international consortium of scientists issued the July 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in support of the concept that animals— including all mammals, birds, and octopi—are conscious and as aware as humans. Ironically, this scientific validation results from studies of cognition and social lives of animals in captivity.

The number of regulated animals used in biomedical research is decreasing in the United States and Europe. In 2014, the numbers dropped to their lowest level since statistics were first collected in 1972— approximately 834,000 rabbits, nonhuman primates, and other regulated animals in the United States, compared to 1.5 million in the early 1970s. The decreases are attributed to the following:

The use of nonhuman primates is becoming increasingly problematic. In June 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that all captive chimpanzees would be classified as endangered along with wild chimps, meaning that the more than 700 chimpanzees in U.S. labs will require special permits. In 2014, an Argentinian court recognized orangutans as having basic legal rights. In 2015, a New York Supreme Court justice ruled against the Nonhuman Rights Project's suit to free two research chimpanzees, but left open the possibility that chimps might be entitled to legal personhood in the future.


Animal Welfare Act (AWA)—
The 1966 federal legislation that regulates the treatment of animals in research, exhibitions, and transport and by dealers. It is considered the minimal acceptable standard for animal care and use but does not apply to most mice, rats, birds, and fish bred for research.
The scientific study of animal behavior, especially in the wild.
Painless death.
Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC)—
The committee at most research institutions that oversees animal research and ensures appropriate care and use of animals.
Consciousness and/or the capacity for experiencing emotion.
Cutting or surgery on a living animal; animal experimentation that causes distress, injury, or death.

Changing attitudes extends beyond research animals.

Ethical conundrums surrounding animal treatment are expected to become even more difficult. For example, in 2014, scientists transplanted immature glial cells from donated human fetuses into the brains of baby mice. The cells developed into mature human astrocytes, enabling the mice to outperform normal mice almost fourfold on cognitive tests. As more animals become humanized by such techniques, scientists and others will face the questions of how are they to be viewed and what rights should they have. The U.S. National Academies guidelines as of 2015 prevented the introduction of human embryonic stem cells into nonhuman primates.

See also Animal experimentation .



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American Anti-Vivisection Society, 801 Old York Rd., Ste. 204, Jenkintown, PA, 19046, (800) SAY-AAVS, aavs, .

American Psychological Association, 750 First St. NE, Washington, DC, 20002-4242, (202) 336-5500, (800) 374-2721, .

American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 424 E. 92nd St., New York, NY, 10128-6804, (212) 8767700, (888) 666-2279,, .

British Psychological Society, St. Andrews House, 48 Princess Rd. E, Leicester, UK, LE1 7DR, +44 (0) 116 254 9568, Fax: +44 (0) 116 227 1314, uk, .

International Society for Applied Ethology, Animal Biology Division, SAC, Bush Estate, Penicuik, UK Midlothian, EH25 OPH, +44(0) 131 445 4811,, .

National Anti-Vivisection Society, 53 W. Jackson Blvd., Ste. 1552, Chicago, IL, 60604, (312) 427-6065, (800) 888NAVS, Fax: (312) 427-6524,, .

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA, 23510, (757) 622-PETA (7382), Fax: (757) 622-0457, .