Animal Kingdom: Proper Care of Lab Animals

These basic rules for ethical experimentation will keep you, your research, and your laboratory animals safe.

From Pavlov’s dogs to Dolly the cloned sheep, animals have played a notable role in scientific breakthroughs across the spectrum of research. Even the ancient Greeks gained important anatomical knowledge through the vivisection of goats and pigs. Although these discoveries have greatly benefitted mankind, the ethics of performing experiments on living creatures remains a subject of much controversy. Regulations and standards of care for animals in laboratories have significantly improved in recent decades, but scientists can help protect themselves, their colleagues, and the animals they work with by learning the laws and best practices.

The Animal Welfare Act

Legally, the use of animals in research must be avoided when other acceptable alternatives exist, but in many cases there are no other options. In experiments that necessitate animals, a number of minimally acceptable standards need to be considered, ranging from the type of dealer the animals are purchased from to the living conditions in the lab.

The Animal Welfare Act (AWA), signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, remains the first and only federal law for the regulation of laboratory animals. Certain creatures, like rats, mice, livestock, and cold-blooded species, are excluded from the terms of the Act. It primarily focuses on the licensing and registration of animal dealers and the development of committees to biannually assess the treatment of animals in a lab.

Random Sources

On the priority list of legislation, animal welfare did not carry enough public weight until Life magazine and Sports Illustrated went to press with stories of criminal and degrading practices in the animal trade. In 1965, Sports Illustrated published an article about a family pet — a Dalmatian named Pepper — that was stolen from his home and sold to a hospital in the Bronx, N.Y., where he soon died during an experimental surgical procedure.

Several months later, Life came out with a piece titled “Concentration Camp for Dogs” that exposed horrific housing conditions at U.S. animal dealer facilities. These articles caused public outcry and led Congress to create and pass the AWA. They also illustrated the importance of finding a reputable supplier that maintains humane conditions and sources their animals though safe, legal means.

Currently, labs can purchase animals from “Class A” or “Class B” dealers. Class A dealers breed animals specifically for research, which are all born and raised on premises. Class B dealers are licensed to resell animals from “random sources” such shelters or thirdparty breeders and tend to offer less assurance that the animals are well-cared for and sourced ethically. Animal rights activist groups frown upon the use of Class B dealers due to the challenges in regulating their activities. Random source animals can cost as little as one-tenth the price of a Class A animal, but most institutions opt to spend the additional money.

Committees for Good Care

An important part of the AWA dictates that research institutions must establish a committee to ensure the proper care of laboratory animals that includes at least one licensed veterinarian and one third-party individual who is unaffiliated with the organization. Twice a year or more, the committee inspects the living conditions and general treatment of the animals. Any issues that are noted must be passed along to the institution for immediate correction.

If changes are not rapidly made, the committee is obligated to report the violations to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and to any funding agencies, which may choose to revoke grants. In 2008, an amendment was added to the AWA that allows the USDA to fine institutions $10,000 per animal per day for failure to adhere.

Additionally, scientists are required to consult with the committee before starting any experiment that may cause pain. Alternatives must be considered, and strict adherence to requirements for post-surgical care and the use of pain-relieving medication need to be followed for any applicable projects. If pain is unavoidable, the research has to be supported by specific research protocol and justified in writing.

Safe and Sanitary Conditions

The AWA is often criticized for its exclusion of some of the most common lab animals: rats and mice. These quintessential laboratory creatures appear far more often in experiments than the dogs, cats, primates, and other more protected species, making their care a top priority for many scientists despite their diminished status in the eyes of federal law.

Rats and mice, similar to people, thrive in an average temperature of 72°F and cycles of 12 to 14 hours of light and 10 to 12 hours of darkness. They need frequent air changes and enough space to move around, which most researchers determine based on the animal’s size and weight — the minimum being about 17 square inches. Bedding changes, proper humidity, and noise control are all necessary for comfortable and sanitary conditions. Microisolator tops on cages are highly recommended to reduce allergens and the incidence of diseases that are transmissible by air.

Healthy and comfortable animals not only lead to more reliable research but also play an important factor in the safety of the people working with them. From the everyday lab rat to the spotted hyena, the unique requirements for care must be addressed to avoid potentially dangerous bites, diseases, and allergies.

A number of resources have been created to support the development and maintenance of quality lab animal programs. Th e Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALACI) relies on three diff erent publications when evaluating the practices of institutions around the world: the 8th edition of the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, from the National Academy of Sciences; the Guide for the Care and Use of Agricultural Animals in Research and Teaching, from the Federation of Animal Science Societies; and the European Convention for the Protection of Vertebrate Animals Used for Experimental and Other Scientific Purposes, from the Council of Europe.

Details on the specifics of caring for a vast variety of species and other best practices can be found within the chapters of these guides. The relatively new science of laboratory animals continues to evolve, and by keeping abreast of these techniques and recommendations, institutions can ensure both a high degree of ethics and improved quality of research.

— Mapes is a Washington, D.C.–based freelance writer and a
frequent contributor to Endocrine News. She wrote about the
“Plan B” pill and overweight women in the August issue

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