Lab animals present a new field for animal welfare studies
This article is the third in a multi-part series on the use of animals in research. Prior articles reviewed animal use in basic science and medical research.
If cows could talk, they would tell you that they prefer to be on pasture at night but inside the shaded barn during the day.
But they can’t. That’s why Dan Weary, a professor in UBC’s Animal Welfare Program and NSERC Industry Chair in Animal Welfare, devised a preference study in which cows were allowed to choose whether they wanted to be inside a barn or outside on pasture. He found cows’ preference depended on the time of day and the weather, but that they nearly always chose to go outside during the night and be inside during the day—particularly on hot summer days.
The study, along with others by researchers at UBC’s Animal Welfare Program, has contributed to changes to practices in dairy cattle farms and the development of national Codes of Practice for farm animals.
This evidence-based approach, says Weary, would be key to improving laboratory animal welfare above and beyond current guidelines and regulations. But more research—and dialogue—is needed to determine exactly what makes lab animals “well,” or even how to define welfare for lab animals, according to Weary.
“The truth is it’s challenging to assess the quality of life of another species, especially animals that are very unlike us,” says Weary. “And despite promising new developments, scientific assessment of animal affect—emotions, pain, preference—is still in its infancy.
“Humans have a long history with farm and companion animals, and we have a certain degree of understanding— through research, experience or even intuition—of what constitutes a ‘good life’ for cows, dogs and cats, for example,” he adds. “But that special bond also means we are averse to using them in research—even though we could arguably be better positioned to ensure their welfare because we can more easily interpret their mental states.”
Solutions pioneered on the farm
That advantage—coupled with a willingness by the farm animal industry to update conventional practices—has resulted in substantial improvements in care standards and in the industry’s reputation, says Marina von Keyserlingk, a professor in UBC’s Animal Welfare Program and NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Animal Welfare.
The development of the Codes of Practice for farm animals was led by the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies in the 1980s and now by the National Farm Animal Care Council. The Council was established in 2005 to engage farmers, processors, retailers, animal welfare groups, government and enforcement agencies in advancing farm animal care. Updates to the Codes, which emphasize “realistic and lasting improvements,” are based on scientific evidence as well as input from farm producers and the public.
“The dairy industry, for example, has made huge investments in research into designing appropriate environments and best management practices, and integrated findings into their new 2009 Code of Practice,” says von Keyserlingk, who grew up on a beef cattle ranch in British Columbia and whose own research into the care and housing for dairy cattle has led to changes in farm practice around the world.
“There’s no question that potential production gains and the desire for favorable public perception helped push this along; but in the end, the cattle have better living conditions and it’s a win-win.”
“Farm animal welfare has become a significant field of science,” says David Fraser, a professor in UBC’s Animal Welfare Program and NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Animal Welfare.
At UBC, for example, there are three faculty members and three federal scientists working at the UBC Dairy Education and Research Centre, all specializing in animal welfare. Adding the graduate students and visiting scholars, there are 25-30 researchers working there at any given time. Dairy Farmers of Canada and several other industry groups have supported UBC research to the tune of $200,000 per year. Elsewhere, the University of Guelph has a similar program, and animal welfare specialists are now working at several other Canadian universities and research stations.
More research needed
In comparison, relatively little is known about animals such as mice and rats that are used in large numbers in research, although new studies are shedding light on how mice express pain through facial expressions, how they prefer to be handled, the humane administration of euthanasia and environmentally enriched housing (see sidebar). Some of the most promising areas of research are currently being conducted at UBC.
But integrating this knowledge into the massive worldwide research enterprise presents its own set of logistical and financial challenges.
“First of all, funding for research on lab animal welfare is limited,” says von Keyserlingk, “and while some practices can—and should—be modified immediately, one unique challenge faced by the research community is whether these changes would impact the ability to compare and interpret new and old data.”
“For instance, new research has shown that the standard practice of picking up mice by the tail creates anxiety, whereas cupping them doesn’t,” says Cathy Schuppli, a visiting scientist with UBC’s Animal Welfare Program. “We know that stress can impact brain development, so changing this husbandry practice might influence the variables being measured in a neurological study.
“On the other hand, there’s an argument to be made that if there’s any distress at all resulting from handling, then the applicability of the results to humans in normal conditions could be called into question,” Schuppli adds.
While research has shown that welfare would be enhanced by housing mice in environments that mimic aspects of their natural habitat—places to burrow, forage, and in a social group with other mice (see sidebar)—full-scale adoption of this housing model would require major investment that could only be achieved with sufficient public support.
Dialogue and public participation
“In the farm animal industries, changes are beginning to happen in response to public demand and the availability of a growing body of research demonstrating the effectiveness of such changes on animal welfare,” says von Keyserlingk. “Similar improvements in lab animal welfare may take longer to achieve, partially because research tends to be further removed from the public eye.
“But if we value the benefits of research—both the research community and the public must find ways to better communicate their priorities and vision for the future,” she adds.
During his presentation last year to the 8th World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences, Weary recounted a talk he gave a few years prior, where an audience of 50—most of whom were involved in some capacity in animal research—braved a rainy Vancouver night to hear him speak.
“It was one of the best conversations I have had about the challenges in advancing the welfare of lab animals,” he says. “But many audience members mentioned that they were reluctant to discuss these issues with colleagues, family and friends.”
“Scientists inherently value openess and transparency,” says Zoology Department Head Bill Milsom, “but many have become more hesitant over the years.
“When I first began my career as a zoologist more than 30 years ago, we used to hold regular open houses at our labs,” recalls Milsom. “Parents and children were invited to see the animals and talk to researchers about their work.
“Then came the era of animal rights protests in the mid-70s to mid-80s,” says Milsom. “And while most were peaceful, some involved violence and property damage—including an attempt to burn down the Animal Care Unit at UBC and vandalism to a researcher’s car and home—and gradually, scientists and their institutions became more and more reluctant to engage as openly with the public.
“I don’t know a researcher who isn’t proud of their research, but many are unwilling to discuss the animal aspects of their work for fear they may be singled out for attacks.”
Developing care standards above and beyond currently prescribed guidelines and regulations—and ultimately a governance system that’s in synch with evolving societal values, say UBC’s animal welfare researchers, may help restore the pride and willingness to engage the public.
“The Canadian governance system was considered innovative when it was established in 1968,” says von Keyserlingk, who was chair of the Canadian Council for Animal Care this past year, “but societal values and the scope of scientific research has evidently changed since then.
“It’s time for us to look at newer systems—some of which have taken the best parts of our system and improved upon them—as well as learn from areas such as forestry and natural resource management, to find ways to better engage the community and balance openness with confidentiality, and research integrity with societal values.”
The next and final installment of the UBC Reports animal research series will take a closer look at different animal care governance systems around the world, their guiding principles, and the role the public plays in advancing lab animal welfare.
UBC welcomes letters from students, faculty and staff on this topic at