G. Scott Lett, Ph.D., CEO The BioAnalytics Group LLC
Emily G. Patterson-Kane,Ph.D., American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Animal Welfare Division
More and more publications are making the point that animals have unique species-specific needs and individual sentience—the implication being that sensitivity to animals’ needs and subjective experiences may lead to better husbandry and higher quality research. We have reported in previous issues of The Enrichment Record about some excellent research that shows the profound beneficial impacts of enriched environments on research results. Some of these efforts involved years of research and painstaking experimentation and data collection. Must we all go through such efforts to get started?
Helen Kelly’s article in ALN magazine (Kelly 2010), reported on enrichment research dating from the 1950s to present day. In that article, she quotes Frans B.M. de Waal, of Emory University. His suggestion? “It is generally true that biomedical scientists would do well to get to know their animals better—not just their inside such as the blood samples they produce but also how they are housed and how they live—so as to better interpret the data they are getting.” He goes on to write, “In other words, the way animals are housed has not just ethical implications, but also scientific ones, pure and simple”. This idea is so simple, but how can you turn a paradigm shift into ideas that one person can try to implement during their next shift at work, or suggest at the next staff meeting?
Ten Top Tips offers small but constructive suggestions of things you might be able to do as part of this effort, and we would encourage our readers to send in their own top tips to firstname.lastname@example.org, so that we can share them (anonymously if you prefer). In any specific setting, most or all of these suggestions may not be possible, but hopefully it will help us all to put our thinking hats on and come up with small changes we can make to help make animals happier and research more productive.
1. Getting an Ultrasound Detector
Many species such as rodents vocalize in the ultrasound range. For around a hundred dollars, you can acquire a ‘bat detector’ that requires no tuning and has an external speaker. This will allow you to hear a range of previously undetectable chatter, social communication, and distress calls…and get to know your animals better. The same equipment can also be used to locate sources of ultrasound in the laboratory or even adjoining rooms that might be distressing to your animals.
Many animals are humanely euthanized at the end of an experiment, and the perception may be that other options should be explored only when they can be provided to all animals. However, it may be worth exploring having an adoption or retirement procedure for small animals, even when it will represent an exception rather than a rule. This can allow a retirement cage of animals to be kept as demonstration or teaching animals, and staff will be able to adopt some animals as pets. Increased familiarity with the species as a pet can help staff become better at reading and handling animals in the laboratory setting and so should be encouraged when possible.
3. Acquire a Natural History Book
We get used to seeing animals in the laboratory setting, but the full extent of their abilities is most apparent in a natural setting. To bring this awareness into the laboratory, try and find a classic natural history of the animal’s lifestyle in a natural setting for people to browse in the break room or borrow to read at home. Many of the best volumes are now sadly out of print, but might be found online. For example: The Private Life of the Rabbit by R. M. Lockley or Natural History of the House Mouse by R.J. Berry.
4. Make Routine Tasks a Treat
Many animals undergo routine procedures such as weighing, feeding, health checks and cage cleaning. Working a simple treat into this procedure may change it from being a source of anxiety for the animal to anticipation. Over time, the animals come to associate the staff more with treats than trouble, and may become more cooperative and easier to handle. This may be as simple as adding a little seed mix into the bedding of a clean cage, or a food treat to occupy an animal and keep it still on the weigh scale. Food treats should be approved by a veterinarian; where they are not possible, a tickle may be just as good.
5. Keep a Lab Book
Sometimes an animal just seems a little off, lethargic or agitated. Nothing you can put your finger on, or worth taking immediate action over. However, if you keep a tech journal, this allows notes to be made on abnormalities or any events that might explain them. Other facilities may use cage notes, an online noticeboard, or a whiteboard. A permanent record is best, as it can be referred to later to see just how long an animal has had a lingering symptom like poor coat, how often a certain bedding material has contaminants, or how often a piece of equipment in need of replacement has broken down. A record of an event like a power failure or construction noise may help explain a later discovery of abnormal data. These events may not be fully apparent to all hands-on workers or to research and management staff. A lab camera (Polaroid or digital) may also be useful for keeping records of unusual events.
6. Measure Animal Welfare Routinely
Establish some traits of positive and negative behavior for the species under study, and make regular recordings in your lab book. A great idea for some behaviors is to establish a scale (from “min” to “max”), and make recordings over time. Labs might benefit from measuring other parameters—from the concrete (diarrhea) to the complex (agitation or depression). Authors, for example Francoise Wemelsfelder (2007), have developed some species-specific measures that can be used as a great starting point.
7. Establish a Behavior Baseline
If one is going to measure changes in behavior due to environment and experimental treatment, it is best to start measuring before experimental treatment or enrichment initiatives begin, and ideal to try to find records of these traits in the natural environment. Having this baseline can help determine how treatments effect animals, which environments are beneficial, and whether the change in behavior is due to environment or due to experimental treatment. If you can’t observe these traits directly in the animals’ natural environment, at least try to become familiar with their expected behavior from books (see TIP #3).
8. Ensure Your Data and Samples Are Protected
Research can suddenly be all for nothing if your samples and data are not protected. Does your facility have a generator, or sump pump to protect storage areas? Are these tested regularly? Are pictures and data files labeled according to an agreed protocol and backed up off–site? Are all major procedures run according to a clear written protocol, preferably with an accompanying checklist? Try and run an experiment so that someone else on the team could take it over seamlessly if they needed to and the whole study could be replicated based on your written procedures.
9. Review Your Disaster Plans:
Does your facility have a good protocol to deal with foreseeable disaster, potentially including power outage, fire, severe weather, flooding, break-in and outbreak of zoonosis? These plans protect the animals and the research by preserving their well-being (e.g. use of visual rather than auditory alarms in animal rooms), life (ensuring water, food and temperature control are maintained) and, when necessary, ensuring depopulation is carried out in a timely and humane manner. If plans are already in place, ensure that all staff are familiar with how they are activated and carried out—including coverage outside of working hours.
10. Have Regular Communication Among Researchers, Animal Caregivers and Other Staff
It is often the case that observations of technicians, stock wranglers and caregivers have profound impacts on research. Create a regular opportunity to discuss conditions in the laboratory and behavior of the animals. Other staff who fully appreciate the goals of the research may be more careful and committed to getting a good result rather than just putting in the hours. Regular meetings can also be a great time to take a look at your lab book and learn what uncontrolled factors might be affecting the data. And, don’t forget administrative, executive and maintenance staff who may also appreciate being included as an important part of the team.
Kelly, H. (2010). Incorporating an Ethological Perspective to Improve Animal Welfare and Data Quality. ALN.
Wemelsfelder, F. (2007). “How animals communicate quality of life: the qualitative assessment of behavior “Animal Welfare 16(Supplement1): 25-31.