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pigs faceRefining the housing and husbandry of laboratory rats: a systematic review


Year: 2021

Dr Vikki Neville
Bristol Veterinary School, United Kingdom

Grant: £3,255


Ensuring that laboratory rats experience the highest possible levels of welfare is an important goal. Aside from ethical obligations to achieve this, it has been suggested that improving the welfare of research animals might help to improve the quality of science. A potentially large number of changes to the housing and husbandry of laboratory rats can be applied with the aim of improving rat welfare and it is important to know which are effective, which have little impact, and which may even be detrimental. We collated and reviewed the scientific literature on potential improvements to rat housing and husbandry to answer the following questions: (1) What potential improvements have, and haven’t, been studied? (2) How have these potential improvements been studied? (3) What conclusions can be drawn from these studies? In total, 1,017 studies were included in our review, and we have produced a database of >1,000 articles that can be used for further and more detailed analyses. The majority of studies identified by our review looked at potential improvements to the cage – such as increasing space or adding items like toys or shelters, but some also involve alterations to the wider environment – such as the temperature or lighting in the room in which rats were housed. Our findings have highlighted areas which are relatively understudied and where future research is likely to be valuable, such as improvements to rat transport and handling and training rats to cooperate with husbandry procedures. Drawing conclusions from the identified studies was subject to a number of limitations. The reporting of methodology in papers was often poor, indicating that studies were potentially subject to biases. Given that the effect of multiple improvements was often examined together as part of the same study, it was often difficult to tease apart which ones were most beneficial for rat welfare. The studies identified by our review also used a range of readouts to assess the impact of the potential improvements, but many of these are difficult to interpret from a welfare perspective. Focusing solely on the subset of identified studies which used readouts that are easiest to interpret from a welfare perspective, there is evidence that rats prefer complex environments, including shelters and multiple objects, which offer different areas/resources allowing the rat to engage in diverse behaviours. One of the clearest results of our review is that the impact of the potential improvements was influenced by number of factors including age, sex, strain and time of day when the data was collected. As such, our review shows that a one-size-fits-all approach to enhancing rat welfare is not appropriate, because different potential improvements will impact different rats in different ways.