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New methods for monitoring and improving the welfare of laboratory dogs

Copyright: iStock

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.

Some medical advances are reliant on animal research. The development of future cures and treatments for diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV, Alzheimer's will be a direct result of animal research being carried out today.

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.

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% of all animals [Home Office 2014] – but they are important and, as such, dogs are given special status under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act.

The home pens of the dogs.Copyright: University of Stirling
The home pens of the dogs. Copyright: University of Stirling

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

"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.

Link between welfare and data quality

Most people are well aware of what high stress levels can do to our own heart rate and blood pressure. These two cardiovascular measurements are critical measures of safety assessment, so it follows (and has been proven in other species) that emotional state can have an effect on the reliability of these data.

To confirm this phenomenon in dogs, Hall and colleagues measured heart rate and blood pressure via remote telemetry in the home pen. They found that PAS dogs had lower blood pressure and exhibited lower cardiac responses to environmental stimuli compared to NAS dogs.

"This finding supports a link between data quality and welfare in dogs," says Hall.

"Any decrease in unwanted variation in these measurements due to welfare state implies that greater confidence can be placed in the data gathered from the dogs."

Continuous improvement

One of the team's significant findings was that restraint alone (even when no procedure is being performed) can have a significant impact on welfare and cardiac output. This was the very evidence needed that could be used to justify recommendations for Refinements to improve welfare (without compromising data quality) – without this, recommendations are unlikely to be taken up widely.

As a consequence of this finding, the team developed a new training protocol to be used to habituate new dogs to restraint before any experiments are performed.

"Our training protocol can be adapted for various types of restraint, including health checks, blood sampling and dosing," says Hall. "But there are other regulated procedures which require additional, specific training."

Sally Robinson explains: ''This collaborative project between academia and industry has developed tools that can be used to provide evidence-based welfare improvements for laboratory beagles in the future; for example single-housing of social animals is something that should be avoided unless there is a scientific need and there are a small number of procedures that might require transient single housing. However, there are no data available to help define the time-frame over which single-housing becomes distressing for dogs, or the impact this has on data, compared to dogs which are pair-housed during studies."

Hannah Buchanan-Smith says: "These collaborative awards funded by the BBSRC are an excellent way to ensure that the expertise of academics is used in research that is relevant to industry, so it has direct impact on important societal issues."

Further reading

Home Office. (2014). Statistics of scientific procedures on living animals in Great Britain 2013. Crown Copyright: London.

Prescott, M., Morton, D. B., Anderson, D., Buckwell, A., Heath, S., Hubrecht, R., Jennings, M., Robb, D., Ruane, B., Swallow, J. & Thompson, P. (2004). Refining dog husbandry and care: Eighth report of the BVAAWF/FRAME/RSPCA/UFAW Joint Working Group on Refinement. Laboratory Animals, 38 (SUPPL. 1), S1:1-S1:94.

Tags: animal health animal welfare policy news