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Beagles are making headlines after decades as key players in medical research

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Beagles are making headlines. Last fall, Republican politicians, including Rep. Madison Cawthorn (NC), attacked Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, seeking to link him to allegedly torturous experiments involving the breed. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) posted a photo of former President Donald Trump holding a beagle on Twitter with the baffling caption “Beagle Lives Matter.” Then, more recently, 4,000 beagle dogs were released from the facilities of contract research firm Envigo after investigations revealed violations of federal animal welfare regulations. There’s probably one available now at your local animal shelter, which will surely get more attention now that Prince Harry and Meghan have adopted one.

Much of the recent attention has come from activist organizations seeking to make adorable little dogs icons of animal testing, in order to undermine public support for federal spending on animal research. But beagle news also begs the question: why are beagles used for experimentation?

Humans and dogs, as any pet owner will tell you, are extremely similar. Many of our basic biological systems are similar: dogs get cancers like ours and respond to certain pharmaceuticals like we do. Beagles, a medium-sized and friendly breed, are easy to work with and inexpensive to feed, making them useful laboratory animals. But the full answer requires a longer historical view.

In the early decades of the 20th century, scientists began to worry about the reliability of their laboratory animals. Dogs have long been used for experiments, especially in cardiology and physiology, because their circulatory system parallels ours. But the dogs the researchers had access to were neither consistent nor even always healthy. Stray animals were often picked up from fields or purchased from city pounds, and scientists rarely knew exactly what they were getting. What was needed, they said, was a “standard” or “normal” dog.

There were several candidates. Researchers at Columbia University proposed the Irish Terrier in the 1930s, and the United States Food and Drug Administration briefly bred the dogs for toxicity testing. But the terriers didn’t stick – their little beards required tedious maintenance, and the defenders failed to raise funds for a centralized colony of terriers. Others offered Airedales or Beagles, but there was little compelling argument for one over the others. Scientists generally recommended the breeds they knew best, generating a mix of competing personal preferences.

Outside of the laboratory walls, however, American dog culture was changing and altering the fates of many breeds. Beagles have always been common dogs, since their importation from England in the late 19th century, but they grew in popularity as dog ownership exploded in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1950, Americans fall in love with Snoopy, a new beagle character in the Peanuts comic. Four years later, the American Kennel Club ranked it as the nation’s most popular breed.

Such popularity has also extended to science. In 1950, the Atomic Energy Commission launched the largest ever study of the beagle as part of a multi-site survey of radiation and longevity occasioned by the American detonation of atomic bombs in Hiroshima. and Nagasaki. The short-term effects of radiation were clear and horrifying, but the long-term consequences of lower doses were less obvious. Because rats tended to die of pneumonia before developing cancers, a larger, livelier test animal was needed.

American nuclear scientists went dog-friendly and chose beagles, which were bred in most states and therefore easy to buy. From 1950 until the early 1980s, large-scale radiobiological studies of the beagle were conducted across the country: at the University of California at Davis, the University of Utah, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory , Argonne National Laboratory, University of Rochester, etc. Much of what we know about the health effects of radiation rests on this work.

But so does much of what we know about beagles and dogs more broadly. It turned out that little basic canine health data existed even in 1950. American veterinarians were just beginning to focus on household pets rather than farm animals. The majority of privately owned dogs died young – hit by cars or felled by undiagnosed health issues.

So, alongside the study of radiation, researchers like Allen C. Andersen of Davis set out to answer key questions, such as: How long can a beagle live? (Over 17 years old.) How many dogs should live together in crates? (Two seemed like the sweet spot.) What were their nutritional needs? Their psychological needs? Supported by Cornell University’s new Dog Disease Research Laboratory, these researchers generated enormous amounts of information about beagles, culminating in the publication of Andersen’s “The Beagle as an Experimental Dog” in 1970.

But the radiobiologists were not alone. Pharmaceutical researchers and the FDA also began to favor beagles. FDA guidelines on toxicity testing dating back to 1955 said the agency used beagles for internal evaluations, but stopped short of officially approving the breed. That changed in the early 1960s after researchers realized that thalidomide, a popular morning sickness drug used by pregnant women, could cause serious birth defects in their children. These revelations convinced lawmakers and regulators of the need for stricter drug testing standards. The result was the 1962 Kefauver-Harris Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which required demonstrations of drug efficacy and established the framework for today’s “gold standard” of randomized clinical trials. It also forced the FDA to explicitly advise companies on how to test drugs, including the use of dogs (or monkeys) as a step between rodent and human testing. Arnold Lehman, director of the FDA’s pharmacology division, clarified in 1963 that when the FDA said “dog,” it basically meant “beagle.”

Because the large U.S. market was increasingly key to the success of drugs anywhere in the world, regulators around the world mirrored the FDA’s beagle recommendation, and drug companies from Germany to Japan established their own colonies of charming little black and tan dogs. Today, there are for-profit scientific beagle breeders in the United States, England, Japan, China and more.

This story reminds us of how much we owe these dogs, countless thousands who have lived, howled and often suffered for science. Their sacrifices have uncovered the secrets of the atom, demonstrated that cigarettes cause cancer, revealed new periodontal surgery techniques and much more. We also know more about dogs and how to take care of them. Many vaccines, including rabies, parvo, and canine hepatitis, were based on beagle research. The same goes for modern canine nutritional guidelines and medications such as Anipryl, which treats Alzheimer’s-like conditions in dogs. Our understanding of dog life has been fundamentally transformed thanks to beagles.

But today, a science without beagles seems more and more probable. Many I have spoken with while researching for a book on the history of the use of beagles in scientific research, particularly within activist communities, predict the end of their use within the next one or two decades. Whether they are correct remains to be seen, but understanding our debt to beagles and their role in over a century of scientific discovery is more vital than ever.