How research institutions ensure that lab animals are treated humanely

PZ Myers, evolutionary biologist and writer of the blog Pharyngula, recently created a post showing his support for the pro-animal research group Pro-Test (show your support for Pro-Test by signing the petition here).  The post included comments on an LA Times online poll asking readers whether or not they believed animal research could be conducted humanely.  In response to this pole, one of the blog readers (Comment #4, by Matt H) stated:

Research on tissue then, PZ. Don’t research on live animals, these protesters are right; it’s inhumane.

This comment brings up a number of interesting points. 

If more researchers were capable of reliably answering their questions using tissues instead of animals, then a lot more of us would do so.  Unfortunately, we often don’t know enough about artificial tissue maintenance to be sure that the tissues respond exactly the same in an artificial lab setting as they would inside of a human being (or other organisms).  Additionally, many questions simply are not amenable to tissue studies.  For example, it’s important that drug tests be conducted on organisms and not just tissues in case the drug has unexpected effects on parts of the body other than the particular tissue in question.  We simply do not know enough yet about how entire organisms work to be sure that conducting experiments on tissues alone won’t leave out an important part of the story. 

mice1Most importantly, I think this comment illustrates how little the general public knows about the hoops researchers are required to jump through before we are granted permission to begin an experiment using animals.  Before any experiment on animals begins, researchers must submit a proposal to their institution’s IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee) chapter.

In my experiences with IACUC, I’ve had to convince the committee (comprised of researchers and veterinarians) of the following points in the proposal:

1) The particular scientific question at hand can ONLY be answered using animals.  You have to clearly explain to the committee why the question that you’re exploring simply cannot be asked through the use of models, simulations or experiments conducted on cells or tissues.   

2) The number of animals that you’re proposing to use in the study is the smallest number necessary to achieve convincing, significant results. 

3) All methods used in the experiments will be conducted as humanely as possible.  Any procedure that causes an animal harm needs to be justified and every step that you’ll take to minimize the animal’s pain must be clearly outlined.

4) All animals are frequently monitored to check for signs of disease or stress.  You must convince the committee that you know what signs to look for and that you know how to address these issues immediately. 

The committee reviews the proposal, often asks many questions and levels their decision.  If your proposal is accepted, then your interactions with IACUC have only just begun.  Surprise checks are frequently conducted with a veterinarian in tow to check on the health of your study animals and to ensure that you’ve been filling out daily log sheets.  These daily logs show that you’ve been regularly feeding your animals, monitoring their health and ensuring that abiotic factors important to your study organism (for example, temperature, dissolved oxygen and nitrate levels for aquatic organisms) are within appropriate levels. 

If an individual is found to be violating the proposal that they submitted to IACUC in any way, then IACUC can shut down their experiment right then and there.  They also will notify the agency funding the project in question that the experimenters were not being honest about their work, which often results in funding being pulled. 


Putting IACUC aside for a moment, it is also in the best interest of good researchers to ensure that their lab animals are as healthy and “happy” as possible.  If animals are sick or stressed, then the tests that we run on them are highly likely to give inaccurate results (unless, of course, you’re studying disease or stress).  For example, as a behavioral ecologist, I want the fish that I study to be as healthy and comfortable in a lab setting as possible because I can’t possibly claim to be observing trends in natural behaviors if my animals are sick or stressed out.  This means that you’ll find researchers going to great pains to ensure that their study organisms are housed in the best conditions possible.

My point here is that it’s in the researcher’s best interest to make sure that their research animals are as comfortable and well-maintained as possible.  If the researcher’s conscience and desire to do good work aren’t enough to ensure that they treat their animals well, then IACUC is there is keep them in line.  


15 thoughts on “How research institutions ensure that lab animals are treated humanely

  1. Not to mention all of the advances in medicine which could not have been developed without animal models. Unless we want to use humans for the development of new drugs, I suppose. Even assuming results in tissue culture could be extrapolated to the human body, the FDA would never approve their use in the general population without some sort of clinical trial first. Yeah, using humans for the research of therapies which have potentially never been explored sounds a lot more humane than using animals. And for the clinical trial, since animal testing must be inhumane as well, guess we have to skip that and use humans right from the get go.

    The crux of a good persuasive argument is the analysis of possible alternatives to a problem. I haven’t seen anything from the animal rights community so far, and I don’t expect to. After all, what alternatives are there which could provide the same results and still be morally righteous? If there was something, researchers everywhere would be using it.

    Personally I am glad that my campus has not suffered any of the drama that UCLA is going through but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time, unfortunately.

  2. There’s a 5th item which is conspicuously absent from your list there, and that’s whether the particular scientific question is actually worth the suffering and pain you are about to induce.

    I’m not a biologist, and I can’t say about what happens in biology and other fields where animal research is done. But I am a physicist, and I know that 90% of the research we do in physics isn’t going to help anyone, ever, in any way. This isn’t so bad when all you’re wasting is paper, computer time and the taxpayer’s money. It’s horrible if it means you’re torturing living things for no real reason.

    Beyond this is the basic ethical question of how much suffering it is ok to cause one being in order to help another. Is it worth killing a hundred mice to save the lives of a million people? Is it worth killing a thousand to save a hundred each year? Is it worth killing a million white mice to cure a disease that affects 5 people every year?

    As for the IACUC… from what I see it is composed mainly of tenured professors. That’s a bit like having an internal-affairs division made up of retired cops.

    • First, let me point out that you have no idea what uses may be found for the research you are doing. The future is great like that. There are any number of advances that are built at least partially upon research that seemed to have no practical application when it was initially conducted. Besides, I feel it could be reasonably argued that expanding the whole of human knowledge is a worthy end in and of itself. Wasting paper, computer time and taxpayer money? Hmmm. One has to wonder if you are in the right field. I bring my knowledge of mathematics and physics to my less educated and read friends with some frequency, enjoying the process of reducing mathematics and abstruse concepts to something within their frame of reference. Because I love knowledge and I love physics. Why are you doing it if only to waste time and money?

      Second, your succeeding statements seem to grant to all beings some intrinsic and at least somewhat roughly equal value. I disagree with this assessment most heartily. All beings are simply not created equal. If you were to have a child and the only way to save that child’s life was to raise, torture, maim and kill a million mice, most likely you would start acquiring breeding stock, supplies and cages before the day was out. I like to think that doesn’t mean you would take joy in such a distasteful task, but there it is. Yet look how conscientious researchers are trying to be, that they would require such stringent regulations for the care of these animals. Look how they minimize any possible hardship to the best of their ability. This research may be often fruitless, but the business is saving, preserving and bettering lives. And not only our own, but also those of wild and other captive animal populations.

      And as for the professors of the IACUC … do you know more of animal biology and care than someone who has involved herself with this very task throughout the entirety of his professional carreer? And who would you select in the stead of this person?

      Had you been born but 20 years ago, how different the life you would have lived! And how much moreso had you been born 5 times that long ago. Yet on any reasonable scale, that is a mere eyeblink. The many wonderful advances we enjoy are almost directly a result of scientists and the discoveries they make. Who knows what might be discovered tomorrow? Scientific questions need answers, and I hope there will never bee too burdensome a triage to select which question merits an answer and which does not.

      • To be fair, I don’t think that 36games was implying that all beings have roughly equal value. Instead, I think that she or he raises an interesting ethical quandary: What is the value of animal lives?

        Surely, most animal testing is done to prevent or minimize human suffering, and in the case of medicine, it is easy to see the benefit. But what of other types of testing (e.g for cosmetics and other luxuries)? Is it right to subject animals to potentially harmful substances for the sake of human luxury? Should people even use substances that are so synthetic (e.g. concentrated chemicals as opposed to cocoa butter or aloe vera) they risk animal lives in testing stages?

        Is it realistic to suggest that people stop using synthetic, potentially harmful chemicals for the sake of lab animals’ physical safety? Probably not. Is it the ethical thing to do? Perhaps.

      • That’s an awful lot of strawmen you’ve got there.

        I never said the physics I do is pointless, or that it’s not worth a lot to me, or that it might not one day be valuable to someone. I said that it is likely to be meaningless in the long run, and as such it does not justify bringing so much pain into this world.

        Likewise, I don’t need to grant all beings an equal value in order to recognize that they have some value. Unless you are completely oblivious to the suffering of animals, there has to be a point in which the research is not worth it.

        You make the infamous appeal to think of the children next. I have no doubt that I would kill all the men in China to save my child; for that matter, I would probably kill your children too. I don’t think that is a good basis for a system of ethics and morality or for the laws of our society.

        As for your last paragraph… much of the wealth and prosperity of the western world was built on the backs of other nations. Should we continue to exploit Africa to increase our prosperity? Do the wonders of the modern US make the atrocities directed at the native American tribes justified?
        I can thank my luck for being born when and where I was born and I can continue to enjoy the life it affords me, while recognizing that there was a lot of injustice involved in bringing me here.

        The burden of proof on scientific research has been growing ever heavier for the past century. Research in which people are involved, in particular, requires an ever growing list of hoops and obligations for the researcher. Animal research is now catching up with that. This is a good thing. Scientific questions need answers, but moral considerations should always come first.

    • “As for the IACUC… from what I see it is composed mainly of tenured professors. That’s a bit like having an internal-affairs division made up of retired cops.”

      In fact, every IACUC is strictly required to have a veterinarian, a “public member” (non-scientist), and a member from another institution who is presumed less biased toward conducting unethical research in the name of institutional gain. Some professors are there, too, because they are experts in animal research whose opinions should be consulted. The NIH explains:

      “The appointed members must be qualified through experience and expertise to provide oversight for the institution’s animal programs, facilities, and procedures. At a minimum the IACUC must include a veterinarian, a practicing scientist experienced in animal research, a person whose primary concerns are in nonscientific areas, and a person who is unaffiliated with the institution except as a member of the IACUC (sometimes referred to as a public member). An individual who qualifies to fill more than one of the specified categories may be appointed to do so, but the committee must still consist of at least 5 members.” —

      Nice post, Kelly. As a neuroscience graduate student who sometimes blogs about experiments, I’ve received some very negative comments from animal rights advocates (including one who alleged that animal research is somehow anti-feminist). It’s good to see other scientists out there who can calmly explain what we really do, and how and why we do it. I sometimes wonder if mouse welfare advocates complain this much about pest control, through which rodents are routinely exterminated without any consideration for their suffering. It seems that much more energy goes toward criticizing biological research, despite the many regulations and teams of crack veterinarians on staff to ensure the well-being of our animals.

  3. It was interesting reading your entry about the treatment of lab animals. However, I would have to agree with (36games?) who posted the comment above mine. The significance of a project, and it’s possible results, must be discussed, understood, and handled with great care before even THINKING of injected it or experimenting with it on another creature. While this might be a pain sometimes to conduct (to both the human and animal) one must consider what it might be like if those regulations were not put in place. Many deaths and a lot of pain (possibly even vivisection) would be the result of inane or possibly ridiculous experiments conducted on lab animals, and there would be very little that could be done about it, because these tests are generally private, no? But I do want to thank you for clearing up some of my concerns in that area of science, Kelly! I am relieved to know that there is still a little care for the critter going on in there! 🙂

  4. I agree. The pharmaceutical field relies so heavily on the need to test drugs in vivo, as does genetic research.
    Have a heart for the poor physicist, his branch of science is having a particularly demoralising time of late 🙂

  5. Very interesting — thanks for posting about the IACUC. It’s interesting to see such a scientific continuity across fields. I noticed similar types of boards and regulations in human research with psychology and communication. (Of course, with human research there are other considerations as well [e.g. vulnerable populations such as children or people who who may feel forced to participate because they are students of the researcher].)

  6. I suspect part of the problem is that for every 1000 labs that treat the animals very well, there’s one lab that doesn’t. And of course the general public only hears about that one outlier experiment.

    Great Blog, I can’t wait to see more.

  7. I’m seriously not trolling, and maybe I’m just heartless or something, but really, I can’t see what the big deal is about hurting animals for research.

    I think if you hurt animals just for fun or something that’s problematic, but if it’s to accomplish something, even just to make some trashy cosmetic product, I honestly don’t where the trouble is.

    I do think, though, the most unquestionable use of animals for research is in medicine. To reference a post above mine, I would see every single mouse on Earth dead to save the life of a single human, no matter who they are. That is the one thing in this post that I actually take as a positive position (as opposed to a more “What’s the big deal?” attitude).

    Someone care to enlighten me? Let me just reiterate that while it probably sounds like one, this is not a troll; I’m actually ignorant here.

    • Yes, I would agree you don’t sound like a troll, but you do sound like somebody at least willing to know more. Personally, I can understand why people would have to use animal research concerning the medical field, but I do believe when it gets into plain vanity and cosmetic products, that’s where the line must be drawn. Now, Kelly has already explained that the animal must be kept as comfortable as possible in medical studies, because if it is stressed or in an unnatural position then the results of the study could be inaccurate. However, with cosmetics, behavioral change is rarely the concern, so, in turn, the creature’s comfort is rarely a concern either. They are usually looking for how the product reacts if it is put on the skin, or swallowed, or gets in the eyes. Therefore, an actual form of torture must commence. The animal (often rabbits, dogs, cats, pigs, etc) would often have to be constrained (so that it cannot rub or lick the product off) and then the shampoo or lotion, etc, will be poured onto the skin, or into the mouth or eyes, and monitored to see exactly HOW MUCH IT HURTS! If this is not absolute torture, I don’t know what is. The point is, while humans do have the unique gift of expanding their knowledge to great heights, most of us also have the ability to have compassion for the other beings around us. It is very important to level out and appreciate those gifts, for they are both useful and wonderful things to have.

  8. Good post. I personally think that there are situations where inflicting pain or death on X animals to save or improve the lives of Y humans is justified, and situations where it isn’t. I imagine most people do.

    I don’t know enough details about modern animal experimentation to comment on its ethics, but I do think it should be judged along the same lines of any other way that humans use animals – what’s the well-being to suffering ratio of a well-run animal experiment versus one cow’s worth of delicious beef versus a few days of relaxing sport fishing? My (uneducated) guess is that the pain-value or whatever for today’s animal experiments is very high compared to the other things we do, considering the knowledge stays with us forever and opens doors to new studies.

    While it goes too far sometimes, I’m kind of glad there’s a lot of watchdog activity set in place for experimentation, because it gives a high incentive to treat the animals well and support organizations like the IACUC. If people regarded things like farming with the same high level of suspicion, they would probably be much more humane than they are now. If I had to pick one, I’d rather be a mouse in a lab than a chicken in an egg crate.

  9. I have a question. My mice seem very comfortible but one of mine is losing fur and sneezing and I dont know how to help it and I dont know what is wrong they have food and water at all times the food is the blocks that scientists use and we have the liter that is like cotton I forgot the name. What should i do to help my mouse?

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