Animal Welfare and Science: Two best friends

01 October 2018 - By: Jonathan Smith

Animal Welfare and Science: Two best friends

Housing gerbils more ethically helped the carers realise that male gerbils help to care for the offspring
Housing gerbils more ethically helped the carers realise that male gerbils help to care for the offspring. Photo: Teresa Valencak

By Jonathan Smith

Do you work with animals in your research? If so, the SEB+ session in this year’s Annual Meeting was for you! Though animal welfare in research is a prickly topic, it was discussed in a constructive and supportive way, designed to guide animal researchers in ways to improve their animal experiments.

The Three ‘R’s of animal welfare in research are defined as reduction, refinement and replacement; in other words, using as few animals as possible for the best scientific gain. Although this always sounds ideal in theory, it is often seen as an obstacle for project planning, due to the tedium of extra paperwork for researchers. This special SEB+ session therefore encouraged us to approach the issue from a different angle completely: viewing the animal welfare process not as a problem, but as a tool to improve your scientific investigations. The speakers gathered in this session talked about why working with regulations and regulatory bodies can have big benefits for your scientific output.


Do you have help with maintaining your animal welfare approaches in your own organisation? “Yes!” asserted Susanna Louhimies from the European Commission, Belgium. She explained the roles of Animal Welfare Bodies (AWBs) in research taking place in the European Union (EU). “As of EU Directive 2010/63/ EU, AWBs became mandatory in institutions handling animals for breeding and animal experimentation,” she said. “These bodies are responsible for overseeing the application of the Three ‘R’s in their institution.”

The general function of an AWB is to maintain awareness of animal welfare. “The AWB is the part of the institution continually asking itself “Is our animal breeding and experimentation as optimal as possible?”,” she explained. Furthermore, she emphasised that this focus on animal welfare does not need to hamper your research. In fact, proactively consulting with the local AWB from the start can focus you on using the minimum number of samples required for your study, making it more efficient and better designed.


Teresa G. Valencak, from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, Austria, set out to debunk the idea that animal welfare and scientific research conflict with each other. “In reality, the two concepts overlap greatly; it is actually the implementation of the two that needs to change,” she suggested. How so? She continued: “In many institutions, students are receiving insufficient training in animal handling, leaving it to the technicians; this means that they can remain ignorant of the animal ethics of their work.” Not only does this increase animal suffering, she explained, but also leads to missed opportunities for scientific discovery.

One example how improving animal welfare leads to scientific benefits involves Golden hamsters. “Unexpectedly, if you shave the back of a nursing Golden hamster mother, she produces more milk,” Teresa enthused. “This is because this lets off excess heat when she lactates, and decreases her stress levels; perfect if you are studying the underlying physiology”. Similarly, Teresa related, housing Mongolian gerbils socially rather than isolating them had a double benefit: “Not only did it decrease the stress levels of these social animals, but we discovered that the males help in care of the offspring as well as the females.”

Teresa’s examples showed that a stronger culture of animal care across all employees in the research organisation has ethical and scientific benefits, as she concluded: “Let’s get more students caring for their experimental animals, not just for their experiments!”


Many scientists using animals present their project proposals to an ethics committee or Animal Welfare Body. As a committee member, Penny A. J. Hawkins from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to of Animals (RSPCA) wants to champion good two-way communication with researchers.

Understanding what your committee really wants to know is key. “Explain what will happen to the animals, using comprehensible language. Be prepared to discuss the animal’s life experience and explain how you will reduce suffering at every stage,” Penny advised. Scientists sometimes feel intimidated by committees, and ‘lay’ members can also be wary of asking questions - but talking about animal welfare, with input from vets and animal technologists, can often identify common ground.

The final note of Penny’s talk emphasised how scientists benefit from ethics committees. “They can provide valuable advice at the planning stage,” she counselled. “Work with your committee from the start, and you will feel much more confident that any welfare issues will have been addressed, which also means better science.”


Lauren E. James from Aarhus University, Denmark, presented her work regarding the more exotic species that are less frequently used in research. “While most of the ethical, scientific and public attention to animal welfare is devoted to the ‘cute and fluffy’ segment of the animal kingdom (think mice, rats and cats), we know less about optimal handling techniques for snakes, lizards and other exotic animals,” she explained.

A common aspect of animal handling is reducing pain with analgesics and anaesthetics. Lauren’s research focuses on snake species, which are under-studied in this respect. “We still have little idea about the best anaesthetic and analgesic regimes for these species, so I undertook projects to identify the best strategies for these species,” she said.

Lauren’s presentation highlighted her extensive work regarding the best anaesthetics and analgesics for pythons. Furthermore, she highlighted crucial differences in applications: “Many reptiles can actually hold their breath for a long period of time, meaning that trying to apply anaesthetics through inhalation often gets unexpected results.”

In conclusion, Lauren advocated a holistic procedure for minimising animal suffering in reptiles. In a similar vein to the other talks, she explained the scientific benefits of this focus: “Minimising animal suffering is not just an ethical consideration; animal stress responses also can hamper our studies on their underlying physiology, so minimising this stress improves the science too”.


A talk by Tania Boden, UCB, UK, shed light on how to use animal technologists in the best way possible. These employees, such as animal technicians, are those that maintain the animal holding facilities and provide all of the basic needs for the experimental animals. Tania continued: “These people are hugely important for improving animal welfare, as well as our science.”

One big problem with animal technology positions is that there is a high turnover. “It is notable that many institutions use cheap temps to clean out the animals, who are usually leaving within one year,” related Tania. “The problem here is that the institution loses the animal technology knowledge and experience that those with permanent positions possess.” This was often seen as a symptom of a lack of respect for the vital role of animal technician jobs in labs.

The key way to improve this problem, Tania suggested, is to employ long-term technicians with better experience with the facilities. “Not only this,” Tania continued. “Communication between the technician and the experimenters is key in both academia and industry.” After listing key ways to better harness animal research, such as better health monitoring in transit and environmental enrichment, she concluded: “This better culture of care, as well as conserving vital technicians, contributes greatly to the science we are producing.”


The common theme of the talks of the SEB+ was dispelling the misconception that every regulatory body, and animal welfare in general, is there to hamper the researchers. In fact, the AWBs in your institution are there to help you design better and cleaner experiments, consistently asking yourself if you can do better. So, the next time you are facing a committee regarding animals in your research, remember to use this chance to challenge and improve your science, rather than fight it! 


Category: SEB+
Author profile picture

Jonathan Smith

Jonathan Smith served as the SEB’s press intern for the annual meeting in summer 2016, and has since contributed articles for the SEB’s bulletin. After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Neuroscience from the University of Bristol, he is currently studying for a PhD in locust neurobiology in the University of Leicester and runs an active Twitter account communicating his work.