RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has submitted to Congress a five-year plan to phase out the use of dogs and other animals in its research experiments.

8News was first to expose the deadly dog testing at Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond four years ago. Now, 8News has learned despite VA’s promise to cut its use of canines in research, McGuire is renewing its experiments and continues to buy dogs.

The report to Congress includes a plan to eliminate or reduce the use of canines, felines and primates in VA experiments by 2025. It also outlines a promise to develop and fund alternatives to sensitive animal testing like computer simulations.

U.S. Representative Brian Mast of Florida, a veteran himself who lost both his legs during service in Afghanistan, has been pushing for an end to the taxpayer-funded animal testing.

“It is positive to see that they are submitting a plan to wean themselves off of painful animal testing, the negative side of their plan is that it is such an elongated plan,” Rep. Mast said.

Rep. Mast called the testing painful and cruel.

Some of McGuire’s research into heart disease involves surgically inserting pacemakers into dogs then forcing them to run on treadmills until they pass out or die. Most of the dogs are euthanized.

“We have to say that there is a line here that we will not cross,” Rep. Mast explained.

Despite the plan the Department of Veterans Affairs submitted to Congress, 8News has uncovered that McGuire Medical Center purchased 27 dogs in the last 12 months to be used in ongoing fatal experiments.

Six of those dogs were puppies when they were purchased this year.

Justin Goodman, Vice President of Advocacy and Public Policy at the taxpayer watchdog group, White Coat Waste Project, has advocated for legislation to end the painful experiments. He said, “The VA in Richmond is lagging behind other VA facilities.”

Still, Goodman sees this five-year commitment from the VA as progress.

“While it’s happening more slowly than we like, things seem to be moving in the right direction,” Goodman said. He adds while McGuire continues to bring in new dogs to test on, VA labs in Los Angeles, Cleveland and Milwaukee have all moved to end the painful dog testing.

“Despite the Richmond VA kind of digging its heels in they are at the losing end of this,” said Goodman.

The agency’s overall use of dogs over the last five years has been cut by close to 80%. However, a spokesperson for McGuire told 8News, “All four protocols continue to be approved, with reviews and renewals being processed as required. The research is currently active and requires the work with dogs to continue for some time into the future.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs declined an interview with 8News but sent this statement:

VA realizes that canine research is a sensitive issue for many people. That is why canines are relied upon only when absolutely necessary, when no viable alternatives exist, to provide the groundbreaking and lifesaving medical care our Veterans have earned and deserve. Ninety-nine percent of VA research is done with laboratory mice and rats and only 0.05% of the animals involved are canines. Not only did VA research establish a link between smoking and lung cancer, it led to the creation of the cardiac pacemaker; the ability to transplant and replace failing organs; and most recently, has given people with spinal-cord injuries a better shot at avoiding lethal pneumonia. Shutting down this research would deny Veterans important therapies and cures.”

McGuire Medical Center

When 8News asked specifically about McGuire continuing experiments and purchasing dogs we were told in part: “The Richmond VA, like all of VA, is committed to reducing the need for research with canines, without sacrificing the hopes of our Veterans for needed improvements in medical care that depend on research that is currently best done with that species. VA will not undercut the ongoing work that is to benefit Veterans. The Richmond VA research is designed to provide information needed to better understand living physiology, which is the foundation for groundbreaking, life-saving changes for our Veterans and millions around the globe. At the same time, our researchers are studying ways to conduct this and future research in other ways that won’t require the use of canines, as we pursue our goal for reducing overall canine research.”

As for the VA’s plan and the VA’s statement that researchers are studying ways to conduct research at McGuire without the use of dogs, Rep. Mast said it is something Congress can hold the agency accountable to.

“It is something we can hold them to. If we can’t, then we are not doing our jobs,” He said, adding that if the VA doesn’t follow through there will be serious repercussions.

We could see from McGuire’s records that one of the dogs purchased last year was adopted out rather than being put down following the research. White Coat Waste Project and animal advocates sees any dog being given a chance at life after the lab as a positive step.

The VA stresses they only use canines when there is no other viable alternative. The VA shared more about the experiments at McGuire:

“Three of the currently approved projects involving canines at the Richmond VA are focused on how disruptions of the coordinated rhythmic contraction of the heart, which depends on precise timing and patterns of transmission of electrical signals through the heart muscle, are related to interference with the nerve signals that adjust heart function to meet changing demands, and damage to the heart muscle. Currently, available ways of restoring normal cardiac rhythm are risky, so one of these three studies is an effort to develop a new, less risky therapy.

As many details are not yet fully understood about the interaction among the transmission of electrical signals, muscle contraction, and neural input to the heart muscle, it is important to do this work with a species in which the known features of electrical transmission, contractile patterns, and neural control of the heart are similar to those in humans. This is critical, groundbreaking research that may be foundational to saving lives and improving the quality of life for our veterans. At the same time, this research cannot be done in people because it would involve inducing abnormal rhythms in normal hearts and performing other clinical procedures that would not meet long-established and universally recognized ethical standards for research with humans.

Another project involving canines at the Richmond VA is designed to improve anesthesia protocols for studies of the heart. Sedatives and anesthetics commonly affect how the heart works, which limits what can be learned about heart function under anesthetized conditions. This study is designed to sort out how to reduce the cardiac side effects while still achieving appropriate anesthesia for future studies of cardiac function.”