24/09/2013 13:21 BST | Updated 24/11/2013 05:12 GMT

Are Standards for Lab Animals Really 'The Highest Possible'?

Organisations funding, undertaking, or promoting animal research and testing often tell the public that 'most animal experiments involve little or no discomfort' and that everything is done to 'the highest possible' standards. Little thought, however, seems to be given to what these words might mean to the public, or whether there is any evidence to support these claims.

Data on how much suffering UK lab animals actually experience will only be publicly reported from 2015, but a quick look through the scientific literature and news reports of medical progress involving animal use confirms that animal experiments are certainly not all 'just a pinprick' or 'simply a change in diet'. Lab animals can and do experience pain and distress - and this can be severe.

In 2012, a large number of UK organisations involved in the funding or use of animals in research launched a 'Declaration on Openness on Animal Research'. The RSPCA has long sought a more constructive debate on the issue but our welcome for this initiative was a cautious one. This was because we want to be sure exactly what organisations would be signing up to and what they mean by statements such as a "world-leading ethical framework that supports our research and ensures it meets the highest welfare standards".

There are certainly establishments with a good 'culture of care', that employ competent and conscientious people who strive to reduce the use and suffering of lab animals and work hard to provide them with good quality environments and care. However, there are others who do little or nothing above the minimum standards they have to meet by law. To most people the chosen words for the Declaration will sound unequivocal. No talk here of adhering to the legal minimum requirements, or providing good or even high standards - but actually ensuring the highest.

Individual statements from companies and universities using animals in the UK can be equally categorical. Here are just a few of many examples. One company states that Home Office inspectors "are charged with ensuring that... at all times the highest standards of animal care and welfare are achieved". Another describes their animal welfare policy under the webpage title "Ensuring the highest standards of animal welfare". Similarly, one university proclaims that it "maintains the highest possible standards of animal welfare", and a second states that their "scientists and staff work hard to ensure that animals are kept and cared for using the highest standards of husbandry" and that "animals... and their health and well-being are given the highest priority".

When a beagle has only very limited exercise sessions per week, and no access to any outdoor enclosure because of an unwillingness to invest the money or a lack of creativity during building design, is that 'the highest possible' standards of dog housing? When one establishment uses the latest state-of-the-art technology to assess disease progression or pain in animals, whilst another relies on older equipment and less refined methods, is the latter still 'the best possible'? When a facility decides that because of pressure on space in the animal house it will house its rabbits individually in cages which - though legal - doesn't allow the animal to move more than a couple of hops in either direction, rather than in groups (where appropriate) in more stimulating and spacious floor pens, is that 'the best possible' or 'highest standard' of environment for those animals? And when a study animal in distress overnight is only discovered when somebody arrives into work in the morning, is that the 'earliest possible' intervention?


Given our expanding understanding of animals' needs and their capacity to experience suffering, it is clear that some of the current provisions for animals are not the highest standards that could be possible if facilities possessed all the requisite knowledge and motivation, and made the necessary resources available. In fact, to our knowledge, nobody has even defined 'highest' standards despite extensive use of the term. When it comes to the Declaration, we suspect, as usual, it actually means 'compliance with the law' or the 'best achievable standards after taking into account cost implications, available space, current staff availability and knowledge, and the robustness of regulatory oversight'.

If an establishment fails to implement all appropriate refinements, then it is NOT achieving the 'best possible' or 'highest' standards - and it is wrong to suggest otherwise. Taking all of this into account, we believe that all those signing up to the Declaration need to begin by being completely transparent about what they mean by 'highest standards'. This is an important clarification which absolutely must be made in order to avoid justified accusations that the Openness initiative simply aims to pacify the public and sanitise the reality of what animals' actually experience.

Of course, the RSPCA strongly welcomes genuine attempts to be open, and to take responsibilities towards animals and the concerned public seriously. We believe this means honestly and openly acknowledging that some experiments are badly designed or poorly carried out - which wastes animals' lives and causes suffering that could have been avoided, that there is serious debate (including among scientists themselves) about the usefulness of many animal experiments, and that not all animal use is for 'vital medical research'.

It also means not making illogical or paradoxical claims as is sometimes done, for example by stating that the welfare of lab animals is the main, or given the highest, priority by research establishments. Let's be honest, if it was, would these animals be allowed to suffer in experiments at all!?

We believe that semantics matters a great deal, particularly when a significant sector of the public - at whom the Declaration and other such initiatives are clearly aimed - repeatedly illustrate that they have serious concerns about this use of animals.

So, many people, and the RSPCA, will be following the progress of the Declaration with interest. We are hoping that in practice it genuinely leads to honesty and openness about harms as well as benefits, rather than a thinly veiled attempt to manipulate the public's palatability of animal experiments. Right now, some clarification to add a touch of realism would seem to be in order.