Improving welfare of animals used in research: a critical necessity

This article is reprinted from the Utrecht 3Rs newsletter, with the message of Jan Langermans, Professor ‘Welfare of Laboratory Animals’ at Utrecht University and also deputy director of Biomedical Primate Research Centre, Netherlands, on welfare improvement of animals used in research.

More attention to the welfare improvement of laboratory animals. That is the message prof. dr. Jan Langermans wants to propagate. He was recently appointed professor ‘Welfare of Laboratory Animals’ at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Utrecht University. He will focus on the welfare improvement of larger animals used for scientific purposes.

“In those fields of research where we cannot move forward without laboratory animals, we have to invest in the highest possible welfare standards” says Langermans. “This is an essential part of responsible use of animals for research.” He emphasizes that with refinement, he does not only mean the reduction of pain and discomfort, but also the introduction of positive aspects that contribute to a positive welfare state. For example, simple improvements in food or cage enrichment and creating positive associations with the experimental procedures by means of training can make a huge difference in the quality of life of these animals. Three themes on which he wants to focus are the training of laboratory animals, the introduction of enrichment under experimental conditions and the use of innovative techniques to improve welfare and reduce the number of animals needed for research.

Training both animals and researchers

“An important question that people who work with laboratory animals must continuously ask themselves is: how can we improve the circumstances for these animals?” says Langermans.

“Much can be won by training animals to cooperate in certain experimental procedures.” To encourage this, Langermans would like to collaborate with colleagues, for example those working in the behavioural clinic for companion animals at the faculty of Veterinary Medicine. At this clinic, much is already being done regarding the training of pets, in order to prepare them for certain procedures during a routine check at the vet. “In a laboratory animal setting, we can also train the animals to be prepared for injections, for example. Most animal species can be trained, even fish. And although sufficient training takes time, in the long term it will be worth the investment. After all, proper training will reduce stress in the animal and thus contribute to both the animal’s welfare state and the quality of the study outcomes. Furthermore, extra handling the animals without procedures, as another welfare initiative, may also become a more positive experience for the caretakers.” Becoming aware of these advantages is already an important first step, and setting up training courses is the next one. Additionally, if animals are well-trained, it is sometimes possible to use the same animals for multiple experiments without increasing their level of discomfort. Besides training of animals, Langermans believes that we should also critically revise how we train future researchers. “I think a researcher should focus on designing a good experiment, but should not carry out any procedures on animals him or herself. This should be done only by the biotechnicians or veterinarians who are much better qualified to do so.”

Enrichment and innovative techniques

Another interesting research topic for Langermans is to study the enrichment possibilities in animal enclosures within an experimental setting. Offering enrichment in animal experiments can be a challenge, especially in standardized test paradigms. “For instance, when pigs are kept as livestock, they often are able to access straw to lie down in and manipulate. However, when pigs are used in an experiment to study infectious diseases, it can be difficult to give them access to straw because this poses potential health risks. I would like to gain more knowledge about optimizing housing conditions in such standardized environments. Related to this, I would also like to investigate whether animals actually perceive our human ideas of enrichment as such. These are important things to study before we implement changes in practice,” says Langermans. Next to enrichment, the further implementation of innovative techniques in laboratory animal science is also one of his main research objectives. “For example, how can we use technology to obtain more data from fewer animals, without increasing their level of discomfort?” An elegant technique is the use of imaging, which enables researchers to track an animal over a longer period of time and to obtain data in a non-invasive way. “It is quite advantageous to be able to follow an animal continuously over time, without being present and thus causing disturbance,” says Langermans. “First of all, one would get more reliable data, since the animal’s behaviour is not influenced by the presence of humans. Moreover, automatically monitoring health indicators may also improve the recognition and application of humane endpoints, thereby reducing the amount of discomfort in the animals,” explains Langermans. He will first focus on raising awareness on the necessity of monitoring, but hopes to find funding to do research on this topic. However, Langermans emphasizes that some improvements can be very easily made, such as placing a camera in animal enclosures to see how the animals behave over time while not being disturbed. This is already considered common practice in livestock farming, but is still quite uncommon when keeping animals in a laboratory setting. “In this respect, we can learn a lot from our colleagues who do behavioural research in livestock farming.”

In conclusion, much can be gained in terms of the welfare of laboratory animals by training animals, offering more enrichment opportunities, and the application of innovative technology, according to Langermans. He would like to contribute to further creating a work environment in which people working with laboratory animals continuously consider which aspects they can improve. “In some cases, a certain amount of discomfort is unavoidable. However, as long as we strive to improve welfare wherever we can, this is not only better for the animals and research, but also for the people who work with them. And lastly, optimal animal welfare is essential if we want to justify our use of animals for scientific purposes, both for ourselves and towards society. We must always be able to justify what we do to the animals we are responsible for. If we are unable to do just that, it means we are doing the wrong things.”

Prof. dr. Jan Langermans has been appointed professor for 1 day a week, in addition to his duties as deputy-director of the Biomedical Primate Research Center (BPRC) in Rijswijk.