Over 26 million animals are annually used for testing in the United States alone. Guinea pigs are just one of the types of mammals from the huge bunch.
But why guinea pigs are used in research in the first place?
You might find it hard to believe, but we, humans, have a lot in common with guinea pigs. Is that the main reason? Moreover, can these researches be justified? Don’t they bring more harm than good?
Let’s take a brief journey into the scientific laboratories to find the answers to all of our questions.
Animal Testing: History
Did you know that various experiments and researches were conducted on living animals since 500 BC (or even earlier)? People use other creatures for various health care and commercial reasons. For testing medications, checking the safety of different products and their toxicity, for example.
Of course, all these experiments are not about gently patting the animal on the head. The majority of them is cruel and, at times, leads to the subjects death. But the truth is that even nowadays we haven’t really found an effective alternative to these savage methods that have already helped save millions and millions of human lives.
Back in 500 BC, such geniuses as Erasistratus and Aristotle dissected animals to find out more about the functioning of living organisms. In ancient Rome, scientists were allowed to practice on humans that were criminals, but that didn’t last for long. Even though the researchers agreed that animals as well can feel pain, vivisection hasn’t been banned as it was the only possible way to find out more about the biology and physiology of living creatures.
With the help of animal vivisection, Galen discovered that arteries actually contain blood (not air, as it was considered). William Harvey found out that the heart (not the lungs) pumps our blood and so on.
In the 19th century, people started massively adopting domestic animals. That was the main reason why a lot of humans began objecting to the cruel experiments on animals. Queen Victoria, for example, became one of the most well-known animal protectors. The first anti-vivisection laws were developed. Like “Great Britain’s Cruelty to Animals Act”, 1876.
In 1956, the principle of the “Three Rs” was formed. It didn’t exactly prohibit the experiments on animals but approved these researches only in case it was the only possible measure. “Replacement” means trying to find an alternative to a living animal in the conditions of research. “Reduction” – minimizing the use of the animal’s body. “Refinement” – making sure that every creature has the best possible living conditions; is treated with respect; ideally, doesn’t suffer.
But all these laws did not mean that animal testing was banned. The researches continued.
Over the years, animals helped us explore even space. But do all these facts mean that researches and tests are justified?
Animal Testing: Pros & Cons
The main arguments against animal testing:
Animal testing is just too cruel
The first argument of all the animal lovers out there. Activists have been spreading horrible photos and videos that prove yet again that animals are certainly not treated well during the experiments. The creatures suffer from pain, dehydration, allergies, burns and various wounds. Moreover, there is such a thing called “LD50”. The main aim of this test? To find out what exact dose of a certain chemical will cause the death of 50% of the subjects. In the 21st century, these things simply sound insane.
Animals are not humans
Well, that goes without saying that no mammal out there is exactly like a human being in every possible perspective. Yes, there are some things that we share in common. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that if the chemical passed all the tests on the animals, it will as well work for humans. And vice versa.
Thus, some of these researches are simply not justified as they are not effective. Moreover, it is impossible to state with a 100% guarantee that the drugs that have passed the tests on animals are safe for humans.
There are alternative testing methods
We can now grow cells in vitro (without using a living organism). Scientists can literally create artificial skin that has all the properties of the human skin. Moreover, in our era of technology, we figured out how to use computer models to help us predict the various effects of drugs.
Unfortunately, the absolute majority of these methods are still too expensive to be widely applied.
The main arguments in favor of animal testing:
Animal testing helped save millions of lives
Think about it: nearly every medical breakthrough that occurred in the last one hundred years was made thanks to animal testing! We have the vaccine for hepatitis B, we discovered insulin, perfected the polio vaccine… Thanks to animal testing, we have a much better understanding of various types of cancer, tuberculosis, malaria, brain injury…
Yet we are faced with a classic dilemma: are the lives of a relatively small number of animals a justified price that we pay to ensure medical progress?
Animals are similar to humans but have shorter life cycles
Of course, we are different species. But we share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, for example. We have similar sets of organs and systems. Moreover, even though we now know how to grow artificial tissue, we are still unable to perform tests on a whole-body system in vitro. Any organism is an extremely complex system and even the most advanced technologies fail to accurately predict the outcomes for a living organism.
Moreover, the majority of animals have shorter life cycles than humans. That means that it is easier to conduct researches on these creatures, as we don’t have to wait for decades to find out what the effect of a particular drug might be. This is especially important for the researches that need to figure out if the medication will make any changes in future generations.
Animals are protected from mistreatment
Without a doubt, becoming the subject of any kind of tests is a miserable fate. But nowadays scientists try to do everything to make sure that the animals don’t suffer and that their living conditions are good enough. Moreover, all these things are regulated with the help of laws and AWA (the federal Animal Welfare Act). The research facilities have to be suitable for animals and the creatures have to undergo regular veterinarian examinations.
By the way, it is important for the animal to not live in stressful conditions for the sake of the experiments. The animals that worry too much and live in crowded cages produce unreliable test results. Basically, the better the conditions, the more accurate the whole test will turn out to be.
Why Are Guinea Pigs Used in Research?
Surprisingly, guinea pigs were amongst the first animals to be massively tested by humans. Approximately 4 centuries ago, the Spanish brought these fluffy mammals from South America to Europe. Certainly, the scientists got intrigued by these new creatures and decided to conduct some experiments. They soon found out that guinea pigs and humans have a lot in common (who knew!).
In fact, there are some similarities that are quite surprising.
For example, the ears of the guinea pigs are pretty much like those of a human being! If you are a happy guinea pig owner, you might already know that just like we, humans, these fluffy mammals can’t produce vitamin C. Another important thing – guinea pigs are incredibly vulnerable animals. They do not only get stressed out easily (psychological vulnerability). They are also quite weak physically.
For example, guinea pigs can catch a lot of diseases that humans also suffer from. Thanks to our cute friends, we were able to discover that tuberculosis has a bacterial cause! And all that simply because the little fellow caught this disease.
But wait, there is more. Guinea pigs can experience an allergic reaction. This fact helped scientists learn more about asthma and anaphylactic shock.
Yet another answer to the question ‘why are guinea pigs used in research?’ is relatively simple. The truth is that guinea pigs were initially bred…for eating purposes. That’s exactly why they are amongst the most domesticated animals and don’t cause a lot of trouble. Moreover, they don’t mind being trapped in a cage. They actually like it (if the conditions are right, of course).
What Guinea Pig Breeds Are Used for Animal Testing?
For those of you who want to become real experts in the topic, you should know what kind of guinea pig breed is most commonly used in animal testing. Surprisingly, those are the short-haired English or American guinea pigs. And that is the most widespread domestic breed. No wonder the heart of millions of people sinks every time they imagine these cuties in scary laboratories…
Why Has the Number of Guinea Pigs Used for Research Declined?
As we have already figured out, various tests on guinea pigs can help the medical field a lot.
But then how can we explain these statistics?
Over 86 thousand mice and rats are annually used for different research purposes. As well as only 1.300 guinea pigs.
If the results of the tests on these fluffy mammals are so effective, then why are we decreasing the numbers of those?
To be able to answer the question, we have to find out a little more about the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).
The AWA was signed in 1966 and since then became the only federal law (in the USA) that regulates animal treatment. In case the creatures are used either for the exhibition, as pets or for research purposes. Basically, this act helps ensure that the animals are treated right and get veterinarian examinations or help whenever needed.
However, the AWA still does not include a lot of animals. Birds, all cold-blooded animals, all farm animals, rats, and mice are not ‘defended’ by the act.
That’s the exact reason why nowadays the number of researches on guinea pigs has decreased. Along with dogs, cats, hamsters, primates, rabbits and all the other warm-blooded creatures used for research, exhibition or pet use, guinea pigs are under the protection of the Animal Welfare Act. That does not mean that scientists are prohibited from using the little creatures as testing animals. However, the conditions in which the guinea pigs live are strictly regulated.
Nowadays, most of the researches and tests are conducted on mice and rats as these animals are not included in the AWA.
Why Should All Humans Be Grateful to Guinea Pigs?
Did you know that thanks to our little fluffy friends 23 Nobel prizes in medicine were won?
Guinea pigs will continue to be used in medical research. Especially, when it comes to the studies of immune, respiratory and nervous systems. The chances are high that these tiny creatures will be able to contribute to dozens of Nobel prizes more!
But let’s have a closer look at the main reasons why we should already be eternally grateful to these cuties.
1. Vitamin C
If it weren’t for guinea pigs, it might have taken us much longer to discover vitamin C. But in 1907 this vital element was discovered during a study conducted on the little fellows. A lot of animals can synthesize vitamin C on their own. But guinea pigs (and humans) can’t do that. We have to get this vitamin with food.
Thanks to guinea pigs, we are able to properly research various nutrition areas to help us find out what the perfect diet for humans can be.
2. The development of vaccines
As we already know, guinea pigs are sensitive to various diseases (viruses and infections included). The most important part is that the animal’s immune defence system acts similarly to that of a human being. That’s why guinea pigs have been used to study various infectious diseases roughly from 1882!
Thanks to the little guys, a German scientist managed to find out what exact bacteria are responsible for tuberculosis.
In 1888, researchers came up with the perfect combination of serum and an anti-serum that could cure Diphtheria.
The perfect balance of toxin and antitoxin was discovered in 1913. This became the beginning of all the vaccination studies. And yes, all that – thanks to guinea pigs!
3. Asthma treatment
Yes, the little creatures can develop an allergy. And even an anaphylactic shock! There are not that many animals that have such a ‘quality’. That’s why guinea pigs are practically irreplaceable when it comes to developing various asthma treating methods. Orally-active drugs and inhaled medications, for example, have been developed thanks to guinea pigs. The ultimate relief for so many people out there who suffer from asthma!
4. The study of auditory systems
The scientists were surprised to find out that the ear of this tiny creature is quite similar to that of a human. Moreover, as a consequence, the hearing range of guinea pigs is quite the same as ours.
Not long ago, a real scientific breakthrough happened when the scientists managed to regenerate hair cells. These are incredibly important tiny parts of our ear. Hair cells are the things that transform the sound into an electrical signal. Basically, these cells are the reason why we can hear. And at the beginning of this century, we were able to regenerate these sensory cells. Possibly, in the nearest future doctors will be able to treat…deafness!
Guinea pigs helped scientists discover not only vitamin C and the tuberculosis bacterium, but also adrenaline! Moreover, the little guys were the ‘protagonists’ when it came to the development of various antibiotics, vaccines, and anticoagulants. Guinea pigs even played their role in the development of the process of heart valves replacement!
Now you know the answer to the question “why are guinea pigs used in research?”. Could you ever imagine that these little mammals are so important for the development of science and medicine?
If you happen to be an owner of this fluffy ball of happiness, you can now be even prouder of your little friend. Without a doubt, guinea pigs manage to help the whole humanity a lot! Could you even imagine that their contribution is that big?