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Animal Welfare

 Rats

The OU Biomedical Research Unit is a Home Office licensed establishment which is permitted to house and carry out experimental procedures on laboratory animals. These procedures are highly regulated and a project licence is only granted after a careful analysis of the harm to benefit ratio of the proposed research is undertaken.

I wanted to work with animals and also love science, this role is a perfect way of combining the two! I enjoy being involved in the design of research studies that could make a real difference in science.

Deputy Biomedical Research Unit Manager

The Unit is supported by a highly qualified technical team including the Named Animal Care and Welfare Officer (NACWO), the Named Information Officer (NIO), the Named Training and Competency Officer (NTCO) and the Named Veterinary Surgeon (NVS) to ensure that animals receive the best level of care. Technical staff are responsible for carrying out daily health checks on all the animals housed in the Unit. All health concerns are reported to the NACWO, who will consult the NVS and also notify the relevant personal licence holder. Staff ensure that animals have clean water and a suitable diet.

All housing and husbandry routines followed within the Unit, adhere to the Home Office Code of Practice for the Housing and Care of Animals Bred, Supplied or used for Scientific Purposes, for example, the animals are kept in a controlled environment, with temperature and humidity maintained at an appropriate level. The facilities are also subject to regular inspection by the Home Office. The principles of the 3Rs ‘reduction, replacement and refinement’ are implemented whenever possible.

The animals are provided with a stimulating environment which encourages them to engage in their natural behaviour, for example:

  • All the animals have chew blocks for gnawing on.
  • Cardboard tunnels provide mice and rats with a place to shelter, or to play.
  • Rats have a play area, which allows them to socialise. This is important as rats are sociable animals.
  • Animals are housed together, whenever possible, to allow them to socialise.
  • All animals have a variety of bedding and nesting materials to provide warmth and comfort. Sterilised egg boxes are a firm favourite among the mice, as they provide a place to curl up and sleep in.

The following video explains more about how staff ensure that high standards of animal welfare are achieved:

In May 2014, The Open University signed the Concordat on Openness in Animal Research whereby we agreed to be clear about when, how, and why we use animals.

We, alongside other institutions that use animals, will reduce their numbers and ultimately, replace their use entirely. We only use animals when there is no alternative. Currently, we use them to find out about Alzheimer’s disease, to learn more about the brain, to train dogs to sniff for cancer, and to look at the effects of pesticides on humans.

We follow strict Home Office guidance and regulations to safeguard all our animals. Where their use remains essential, The Open University is committed to a culture of care and respect for their welfare.

We have a Biomedical Research Unit which has nine holding rooms, five behaviour testing rooms, a procedure room and a clean cage and storage area.

As we enter the facility, we go through an ‘air shower’ which removes germs from clothing and skin. Inside the unit, we have air purifiers, which were developed by NASA. These are mounted on the walls around the research unit and eliminate airborne germs, reducing the risk of infection from bacteria, viruses, moulds, fungi and allergens.

Once in the facility, we see how rats and mice are housed, play, and are handled.

In housing the animals, we use ‘environmental enrichments’ which allow them to express basic behavioural needs and to promote species-typical behaviour. These significantly improve their lives in the laboratory.

In each cage, we have bedding made from wood chips, a thermal insulator to keep them warm and things such as cardboard houses and plastic tunnels which allow animals to engage in natural hiding, burrowing, and nesting.

Cages are stored in ventilated cabinets to provide an optimum microclimate for animals: air is filtered; animals are protected against exposure to excessive light, noise, and draughts; and they can smell and hear each other easily.

We are responsible for the animals’ health and welfare. They don't have the freedom to go away and search for food and water or to find a better nesting site so, daily husbandry and welfare checks are crucial.

Every day we check that all animals are healthy; enough food and water is available; enough nesting material is present; and they have stuff to entertain them that is in good condition.

Play is important for the welfare of animals. With this in mind, we introduced the play area and created playpens for rats by adapting rabbit cages. The playpens have tunnels, boxes, toys, and treats. Rats play here for up to a few hours a day. They can exercise, socialise and perform natural behaviours such as climbing, foraging, and burrowing.

Like any wild animal, rats and mice need to be handled with care. Moving them to clean their cage may upset them, so we follow the best animal science literature to minimise stress. Cleaning cages can also disrupt scent marking, which we try to mitigate by transferring some nesting material from the soiled cage into the clean cage.

Handling animals competently and sympathetically also reduces stress. Recent research has shown that the traditional method of catching mice by the base of the tail makes them anxious. Thus, we handle mice using tunnels, which is much easier on them.

Staff at the research unit have found two instances where touching the animals can be beneficial.

One is called ‘rat tickling’ which was developed by neuroscientists studying positive emotions and ultrasonic vocalisations in rats. Tickling generates a positive effect in these animals. Tickled rats produce vocalisations at 50 kHz, a range shown to be associated with positive welfare.

The other application of touch is called the ‘Oestrous dance method’, which we developed ourselves. This is a simple test to find when an animal is 'in heat' and suitable for mating. This takes the guesswork out of when to pair the rats. We no longer have to rely on 'proven' female rats – those that have already given birth – but can use younger animals which makes our work more efficient and ultimately means that fewer animals will be used. All of this confirms the effectiveness of body mass monitoring to detect early stages of pregnancy in the absence of any other external or internal signs.

Our research continues to break new ground. We are developing new technologies such as computer modelling that will reduce our reliance on animals.

To find out more about research in this field, visit our Animal Research pages on the OU website.

All technical and academic staff, and research students receive mandatory in-house training before they are allowed to handle any of the animals. Staff also undertake regular refresher courses to ensure they keep up-to-date with the latest developments relating to animal welfare.

I always wanted to work with animals. I had considered veterinary nursing, but then a role as a technical assistant came up and it seemed the perfect opportunity. I’ve been working in the Biomedical Research Unit in a variety of roles ever since. Things I have enjoyed the most are having the opportunity to contribute to the improvements that have been made to animal welfare within the lab environment, and it is also good to know that the help and support of the Biomedical Research Unit team has contributed to the students’ achievement of their PhDs.

Biomedical Research Unit Manager