Welfare of laboratory animals under threat - Veterinary Practice
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Welfare of laboratory animals under threat

ANDREW KNIGHT reviews the Home Office figures for last year and the likely effects of the updated European Directive

THE 2009 laboratory animal use
statistics for Great Britain were
recently published by the Home

Just over 3.6 million scientific
procedures were conducted on animals
in 2009, a reduction of around 1%
compared with the previous year. Some
3.5 million animals were used for the
first time, also a fall of
1%. The number of
procedures is always
higher than animal
numbers, due to re-use
of some animals.

Although these
very slight declines are
encouraging for animal
welfare, they must
nevertheless be kept in
perspective. They
followed six successive
annual increases, with
the result that these
totals remain the
second highest since
the current method of
recording was
introduced in 1987 – more than two
decades ago.

It was particularly encouraging to
see an overall reduction in the use of
primates by 7%, although New World
primate use increased very substantially.

The advanced emotional,
psychological and social capacities of
primates markedly increase their risks of
suffering within laboratory
environments and procedures. They
have advanced capacities to understand
and remember that certain people, tools
or procedures are likely to cause pain
and distress, and their ability to
anticipate future aversive experiences is
likely to compound the distress such
events may cause. Disturbingly, around
30% of all EU primate experiments
occur within the UK.

Even more disturbing was the
steadily increasing use of genetically
altered animals, which exceeded the
number of normal animals used for the
first time. Fifty-two per cent of
procedures involved animals that were
genetically altered, of which a large
proportion were used for breeding.

The production of genetically
modified strains involves surgical
procedures and significant physiological
challenges. It is also an inherently
inefficient process, frequently resulting
in a high proportion of discarded
animals, with the welfare of the survivors more likely to be adversely
affected than for non-GM strains.

With respect to animal suffering,
Home Office Minister Lynne
Featherstone stated when commenting
on these figures: “We ensure procedures
are only carried out where completely
necessary, and that suffering is kept to
an absolute minimum.”

However, in 2009,
67% of all procedures
did not utilise any
form of anaesthesia –
an increase of 2%
compared to 2008.
From 1988 to 2008,
the proportion of such
procedures fluctuated
from approximately 59
to 69%. Analgesic use
was not reported.

Whilst anaesthetic
and analgesic use
undoubtedly alters
normal physiology,
claims that such
alterations are sufficiently important to
hypotheses under investigation to warrant their exclusion, require careful

Despite increasing recognition that
pain relief improves both animal welfare
and research quality – via minimisation
of pain-related physiological,
psychological and behavioural
distortions – pain monitoring and
analgesic provision remains less than
optimal within many research protocols.

A wide variety of stressors have the
potential to cause significant stress and
fear in laboratory animals. These may be
associated with the capture of wild-
sourced species (mainly primates) used
to supply laboratories or breeding
centres, transportation (which may be
very prolonged for some animals),
laboratory housing and environments,
and both routine and invasive laboratory

Studies have clearly demonstrated
that the stress caused by laboratory
housing and environments, routine
laboratory procedures, and in all
likelihood other stressors such as those
associated with wild capture,
transportation and invasive procedures,
may result in profound, statistically-
significant distortions in a range of
physiological parameters, including
cardiovascular parameters and serum
concentrations of glucose and various

Behaviour may be markedly altered,
and behavioural stereotypies and
increased aggression may develop over
time, as may alterations in certain neuro-
anatomical parameters, and even
cognitive capacities.

Unsurprisingly, the chronic stress experienced by most laboratory animals
may result in immunocompromisation
and increased susceptibility to a range of
pathologies. As well as creating
significant animal welfare and ethical
problems, such conditions and their
effects on laboratory animals may also
distort a wide range of experimental
outcomes, such as those dependent on
accurate determination of physiological,
behavioural or cognitive characteristics.

To further assess the suffering
experienced by laboratory animals, it
would be helpful to know the levels of
analgesic use, of correlation between
markedly invasive procedures and
anaesthetic or analgesic use, and of
environmental enrichment and
socialisation opportunities.
Unfortunately, however, such data
remain unreported.

Important and recent legislative
developments are unlikely to rectify
most of these deficiencies. In
September, the European Parliament
adopted an updated text to replace
European Directive 86/609/EEC on
the protection of animals used for
scientific purposes, which had governed
European laboratory animal use for
more than two decades.

Although weakened considerably in
comparison to earlier drafts, in most
respects and for many European
countries the new Directive will
nevertheless strengthen the protection
of animals used for scientific purposes.

Ethical evaluation

It explicitly requires systematic,
compulsory ethical evaluation and
authorisation of scientific protocols.
Likely harms to animals must be
balanced against the scientific or
educational validity, usefulness and
relevance of the expected result, and
3Rs strategies must be utilised wherever
“possible” – a concept that is
notoriously open to interpretation and
that unfortunately remains widely

The scope of the Directive is also
broadened. Protection is extended from
living vertebrates to include mammalian
foetuses in their last trimester of
gestation, independently feeding larval
forms, cephalopods, and animals bred
for organ-harvesting.

The use of non-human primates is
restricted – particularly in the case of
Great Apes – although not prohibited.
However, the latter may be used only in
the case of an unexpected outbreak of
a life-threatening or debilitating human
disease, or when the survival of the
species itself is at stake.

Notably, the new Directive specifies
an upper limit of pain, suffering and
distress, above which animal use is not
normally permissible. Procedures resulting in severe pain, suffering or
distress, which is likely to be long-lasting
and unable to be ameliorated, are largely,
although not entirely, prohibited.

European Member States will have
24 months to adopt and publish
national legislation which will transpose
the provisions of this Directive. The
latter will become effective on 1st
January, 2013. However, the Directive is
weaker in some respects than existing
UK legislation, so to safeguard the
welfare of laboratory animals in the UK
it will be important to ensure the latter
is not watered down to meet “bare
minimum” European requirements.

Additionally, the Comprehensive
Spending Review of Science currently
being undertaken by the coalition
government is expected to reduce the
amount of funding available, which
could adversely affect the ongoing
development of alternative research and
testing strategies, as well as the care and
welfare of animals used in UK

The welfare of UK laboratory
animals is, therefore, under threat from
several directions. However, as well as
being least able to speak up for
themselves, these animals are within the
sector of society least responsible for
our current economic crisis.

To ensure they do not pay a
heavier price than those actually
responsible for it, the veterinary
profession must emphasise to our
government the significant importance
of good animal welfare to society at
large. We must clearly make the point
that weakening of UK minimum
standards for laboratory animals is not
an acceptable option for mitigating our
economic woes.

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