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Monitoring and Improving the Welfare of Laboratory Dogs

19 September 2014

SCOTLAND, UK - Researchers from the University of Stirling, working alongside a major pharmaceutical company, are investigating the best ways to measure and record dogs' health to ensure that high levels of welfare are maintained in research settings.

Animal research is highly regulated by law, both in terms of how and when animals are used in experiments, and how they are taken care of throughout their lives.

No animal can be used in research if a non-animal alternative exists, and scientists all over the world continue to develop new ways of conducting research without using animals, using techniques such as working on isolated cells and tissues or artificial models and systems.

However, there is still a lot of medical research today that cannot be carried out by any other means. Indeed, animal research is required by law in some cases, such as medicine safety testing.

The dogs in the outdoor play area. Copyright: University of Stirling
The dogs in the outdoor play area.
Copyright: University of Stirling

Human's best friend

Dogs have played an important part in medical research over the last century, including the discovery of insulin to treat diabetes, the development of open-heart surgery procedures and anti-rejection drugs for organ transplants. However, the use of dogs in research is a sensitive issue and there is understandable public concern that their use is strictly controlled.

The number of dogs used in research each year is small – about 0.09 per cent of all animals [Home Office 2014] – but they are important and, as such, dogs are given special status under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act.

Where dogs are used, great care is taken to ensure high welfare standards. However, at present many decisions on housing and husbandry for laboratory dogs are based on personal experience or anecdotal evidence.

That's why Laura Hall, funded by a BBSRC Industrial CASE studentship and supervised by Professor Hannah Buchanan-Smith (University of Stirling) and Dr Sally Robinson (AstraZenenca), set out to find a practical framework for harmonising welfare and quality of data for dogs used in research.

Hannah Buchanan-Smith explains: "For some species of animals used in research, we have strong evidence-based data to show how different types of housing, handling and scientific procedures can impact on their welfare. However, no established, integrated methodology for identifying or monitoring welfare and the quality of data output previously existed in the laboratory-housed dog.

"When it comes to making improvements to the way dogs are housed and cared for, we wanted to ensure that decisions were evidence-based."

Welfare assessment

The team's first step was to create a holistic welfare assessment framework. They assessed dogs from three groups within the AstraZeneca facility, taking account of differences in housing, staff contact and histories between the groups.

They then used cognitive bias testing, which identified two groups of dogs – one group with a positive affective state (PAS, the 'optimists') and one with a negative affective state (NAS, the 'pessimists'). It's a technique borrowed human psychology, which finds people who are depressed or anxious are more likely to view ambiguous stimuli as being negative or threatening (a pessimistic bias), compared to those who were not depressed who had a more positive (optimistic) view of ambiguous stimuli.

As a result, the team was able to spot differences in behaviour between the two groups in the home pen, both at baseline and in response to behavioural 'challenges'. PAS dogs exhibited positive responses to positive challenges (human interaction and feeding toy) and a lower reaction to two negative challenges (single-housing and restraint). NAS dogs had a much greater response to both negative challenges, suggesting that they were less able to cope, and positive challenges especially human interaction, where over-excitement is undesirable for data quality.

"The behavioural challenges we conducted during the development of the framework provided us with evidence that brief periods of human interaction are beneficial," says Hall.

"This is especially important in an environment where close human contact is necessary."

"The introduction of a feeding toy into the home pen also proved to be beneficial to the dogs, without introducing resource guarding, and can easily be incorporated into daily feeding routines."

Using the behaviours in this framework, which reliably indicated positive or negative welfare (the internal state of the animal in relation to its environment), the researchers then developed a welfare monitoring tool for staff to use.

Importantly, the tool allows staff to monitor welfare in the home pen, to examine the effects of changes to housing, husbandry and scientific protocols, and to identify dogs which require additional support. Dogs on longer-term studies (up to three years), for example, may require additional welfare support to prevent situations from triggering aversive behaviours.

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