Training laboratory animals

Training laboratory animals can be a useful way to improve their welfare. It reduces stress for the animals, since it improves the predictability of their situation as well as their feeling of influence on it. Training is especially useful for performing particular procedures and for building better relationships with the animals.

Training animals is becoming a worldwide trend in the world of veterinary medicine. Zoos have done it now for quite some time, and it is becoming increasingly popular with larger laboratory animals such as cats, dogs and monkeys. And training small lab animals, such as rats and mice, is on the rise.

Why train lab animals?

The aim is: less stress for the animals, more job satisfaction for the people involved, and better science. Two core principles play an important part in reducing stress on laboratory animals: predictability and controllability. Predictability means that an animal can predict what is going to happen in its environment. Controllability means that an animal can behave in such a way that it can have some influence over the situation. Predictability and controllability benefit an animal’s welfare. When a laboratory animal is trained, it is taught a specific behavioural response in a given context. Its behaviour can be rewarded or punished, but since punishment actually increases stress, it is in principle not done.

Laboratory animal welfare

Training has great advantages for animal welfare, especially in the long term.

  • Less anxiety, pain and stress during procedures
  • Less need to restrain animals
  • Less aggressive behaviour (such as biting), so the procedures go more smoothly
  • Better bonding with caregiver(s)
  • Enrichment, like play and being stroked

Challenges

Training is not the solution in every situation. It entails some challenges that must be overcome.

  • Investment of time (only useful in longer-term situations)
  • Makes saying goodbye more difficult for caregiver(s)
  • Requires professional approach (don’t just start by yourself)

Despite these challenges, training is in some cases very important, since there are procedures that can cause mental trauma in an animal. Training lowers the stress level associated with these procedures and is also beneficial in the long term. For example, the animal can be trained again after a longer period if a particular procedure needs to be repeated.

Training or habituation?

Habituation can be a useful addition to training. It entails having the animal become used to a particular procedure. If this is followed by a reward, the animal comes to associate the unpleasant procedure with something positive. In training, the animal is made to actively cooperate, coming closer to the total procedure step by step. Habituation is being used more than active training. Both can be useful, depending on the situation.

Training and the 3Rs

Training is principally about refinement. Training animals allows them to experience less discomfort. Since their stress has been reduced, the measurements taken from them are more reliable, which has a positive effect on the reliability of the outcome. Animals will cooperate more readily, and will need to be restrained less often, making a procedure go more smoothly. One can work faster, more safely, and more accurately.

Autonomy

There are some conceivable ethical objections. Trained laboratory animals cooperate with experiments on them based on rewards. On the one hand, this gives them more autonomy: they choose to cooperate and are not coerced into participating. On the other hand, this is not real autonomy: they are enticed into participating with rewards and do not have a complete idea of their situation. They are unable to make a choice in the way a person would be. However, since we are conducting animal experiments, it’s important to ensure that the animals involved have the best possible welfare, and training them can help.

Getting started with training

Would you like to get started training laboratory animals? In that case it’s essential that you really know what you’re doing. Think critically about your approach and how to refine your study. Contact us, and we’ll put you in touch with experienced trainers at Utrecht Science Park.