Animals Helped Make Your Medicine: What Can a Vegan Do?

There are animals in your medicine cabinet.

Well, not, most likely, live animals. But most medications contain some kind of animal derivative, German authors Reuben Proctor and Lars Thomsen write in their book “Veganissimo A-Z,” which has just been translated into English.

Lactose, commonly used as a carrier, stabilizer or a bulk-adding agent in medicines, comes from animals. Gelatin from cattle and pigs’s skin and bone is widely used in capsules, pulls and tablets. Derivatives such as shellacs from insects and magnesium stearate, made from animals’ fatty acids, are also frequently used in manufacturing tablets, capsules and powdered forms of medicines. Cochineal or carmine is a red dye made from the shells of crushed insects used as a coloring agent in medicines.

Proctor and Thomsen also note that vegans need to be aware that some drugs (insulin, hormone preparations, amino acid infusions) contain active ingredients, meaning that substances that are biologically active (such as bacteria and yeast, which are used to produce insulin) are among their ingredients.

Even medicines that do not contain animal derivatives or active ingredients are not “animal-free.” By law, medicines must be tested on non-human animals before bring approved for use for us. Animals are used in the manufacturing of medicines we commonly use for health, at many stages of their production.

Proctor tells NPR that of the extensive lengths he has gone to avoid using medications based on animals. When in need of surgery last year, Proctor requested not to use heparin, an anti-coagulant that is made from the intestinal mucous membranes of pigs. There is a synthetic substitute, fondaparinux, but (as his doctor told him) it comes with a heightened risk of hemorrhage, so Proctor found himself having to use heparin, very unwillingly.

We are dependent on animals for many products that we rely for our health. But if you are vegan and prefer to avoid using any products that involved animal testing, what can you do?

As the U.K.-based Vegan Society observes,

…we live in an imperfect world. … In The Vegan Society’s Memorandum of Association, veganism is used to denote a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude- as far as possible and practicable- all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to animals. You yourself know best what your own particular situation is, what efforts you can make and what possible and practicable means for you.

While it is very likely impossible to have truly vegan medication, there are ways to minimize this, says, noting that you should take medications if not doing so would endanger your health. But you can eat healthfully (avoiding processed foods and animal products in your diet), exercise and do all that you can to maintain your health.

The use of animals in manufacturing medicine poses an ethical quandary for anyone who chooses not to eat meat and prefers to avoid using animal products. But it is also a wake-up call about how intertwined animals are in everyone’s life in ways we are not even thinking of. Certainly, it’s a huge motivation to advocate for researchers to develop alternatives to animal testing, such as using cell and tissue cultures and computer modeling, and all the more reason to campaign for humane treatment of animals in any and all settings.


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Fi T.
Fi T.about a year ago

Only if they're not exploited

Diane L.
Diane L.1 years ago

I've NO desire to resurrect this discussion, nor start a debate with anyone. I posted the previous ONLY as information for any other vegan who is diabetic and might not consider taking insulin because of the erroneous information previously posted here.

Diane L.
Diane L.1 years ago

I know this is an old discussion, but I just was back to the last posts made here, in the process of cleaning out my C2's IN BOX. Marilyn has already addressed the comments made by another member about why he would have rather died than taken insulin derived from pigs. The funny (not amusing, but weirdly inaccurate) part of what he'd stated is that what is being provided to those who are Type I Diabetic does not come from pigs. Here's what is stated by the ADA:

Human insulin
Human insulin is not prepared from human pancreas tissue. Rather than being extracted from human pancreases, commercially available human insulin is manufactured through recombinant DNA technology, in which the gene for making human insulin is transferred into simple cells such as bacteria or baker’s yeast. The insulin made by those cells is identical to insulin made by the human pancreas. Unlike animal insulins, recombinant DNA human insulins can be made in unlimited supply, since they do not depend on the supply of bovine and porcine pancreases.

Elizabeth Zehren
Elizabeth Z.1 years ago

I started my vegan lifestyle last year and it has been a positive experience. I have lost 10lbs and feel a lot better. I thought dairy would be a lot harder to cut out that it really was. I used to love dairy, but it just made me feel fat and tired. Anyways, I love cows more. It is unfortunate that it is required for drugs to be tested on animals. I am glad that I am no longer taking any prescriptions and hope that I don't have to take any other least any time soon.

L and P.
L and P.2 years ago

MarilynBusyW says,
“The fact that you live in a building with doors and floors, and use a computer and possibly a vehicle and sleep on a bed means that you are using animal products daily. Even your vegan meals are packaged in cardboard that is glued and waxed....and the factory where it was manufactured has killed many many animals”

Rather than repeat myself - For a response to her same comment on this same thread, please refer to my post on this thread at 2:05AM PST on Nov 7, 2013.

Thank you.

2 years ago

John.... do you really think that the Actrapid & Protaphane were not tested on animals?
Think again.

I love animals and do my best for their welfare in many ways...but I think a human life IS different in that we can accomplish great things with our lives....many of which benefit animals....when we're alive.
If we're dead....well...not so much.
So risking your life doesn't absolve you of guilt or make you superior, it just means that you have no respect for your own body or your own life.

The fact that you live in a building with doors and floors, and use a computer and possibly a vehicle and sleep on a bed means that you are using animal products daily. Even your vegan meals are packaged in cardboard that is glued and waxed....and the factory where it was manufactured has killed many many animals.
So it makes no logical sense to use medication that is less effective and risk your own health.

Sandra L.
Sandra L.2 years ago

But if synthetic drugs are tested on animals then how has pumping your body full of synthetic Big Pharma coctails helped animals?

Sandra L.
Sandra L.2 years ago

What if the prescription is meat itself as with the GAPS diet? Does the compassion for all living beings extend to the parents and children affected by ASD?

L and P.
L and P.2 years ago

Having run a natural health clinic for quarter of a century it has been my experience that people who abstain from eating animals generally treat their health as a priority. They are usually non-smokers and light drinkers of coffee and alcohol, they take exercise, enjoy a little sunshine each day and thrive. (There are exceptions of course who love vegan alcohol, lots of coffee, overeat on sweets, carbs & fatty foods and who stay up all night).

I seldom recommend supplements to vegan people because their overall lifestyles bring vital good health.

I eat 3-4 brazil nuts daily as a selenium top-up - selenium levels are low in our soil.

After 37 years as a non-supplementing vegan I personally began taking vitamin B12 just this year as a preventative measure. If that is all it takes to step off the animal-killing merry-go-round, I'm happy to pop a pill a few times a week.

2 years ago

The Academy and even the Vegan Society recommend supplements for people on a vegan diet...and most critically for children.