Scientific procedures carried out on animals in UK laboratories are currently at almost their highest level since the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act came into force in 1986. The Home Office releases statistics of scientific procedures on animals each year. Numbers reached a minimum in 2001 at a little under 3 million, but have since risen steadily to almost 4 million.

The most recent figures available are for 2014. Rules about how the figures are reported have changed in the last year so numerical comparisons with previous years should be considered carefully. (See Here)

In 2014 3.87 million scientific procedures were completed in Great Britain. 1.94 million were connected to creation and breeding of genetically modified animals that were not used in any further experiments. The majority of experimental procedures (60%; 1.16 million) were carried out on mice and 14% (264, 000) were on fish.

For the first year scientists had to report on the severity of the procedures they carried out on animals and the degree to which those animals might have suffered. 25% (483,000) were classified as moderate and 8% (150,000) were assessed as severe. This is a matter for deep concern.

We can only estimate the number of vertebrate animals used in experiments worldwide because not all experiments on vertebrate species are recorded in all countries. However, it is believed that around 200 million vertebrate animals are used for scientific experiments each year.

In the US, for example, experiments on mice, rats, other rodents and on birds, are not counted in statistics, even though these are among the most commonly used laboratory species. In the UK, surplus animals that are bred for, but not used in, experiments, and animals used to produce certain types of biological material are not counted.

In 2013 rodents were the most commonly used species, accounting for 82 per cent of all procedures; fish (12%) and birds (3%) were the next most frequently used species, with zebra fish comprising 65 per cent of all procedures involving fish and domestic fowl comprising 92 per cent of all procedures involving birds; other mammals and reptiles/amphibians accounted for 2 per cent and 0.3 per cent of all procedures respectively; dogs, non-human primates, cats and horses (i.e. specially protected species) were used in 0.4 per cent of all procedures, with a combined total of 16,800 procedures.
The types of experiments that are conducted on animals fall into three main categories. These are:

– Studies where animals are used to understand human physiology and disease

– Studies that use animal models to test, develop or assess how safe products are

– Using animals to produce biological materials

Whether it is ethical to use animals in experiments depends on:

– Whether there are other experiments that can provide the same type of information or;

– Animals that are used in experiments being treated as humanely as possible as long as harm can be kept to an ethically acceptable minimum and;

– Whether the cost to individual animals is outweighed by realisable tangible benefits to human or animal health

Many human medicines and treatments have been successfully developed following studies and testing in animals.  Animal testing has played a role in making sure effective and safe vaccines are available for immunisation against polio, diphtheria, mumps, measles and hepatitis.

Research in animals has also led to the discovery of insulin used to treat human diabetes, and to the development of many surgical and implant procedures that are now used.

However, some scientists are starting to suggest that the differences between species might be the reason why cures for some human diseases are proving difficult to find. Animal results might be misleading. An estimated 90% of potential new drugs that have looked promising in animal trails fail when they are tested on humans.

Animal experiments are not just performed to protect human health. Many advances in veterinary medicine, including the development of vaccines for rabies and the development of diagnostic and surgical techniques have involved research in animals.

In some cases, these studies have prevented a species from becoming extinct or endangered. A good example of this is research into hepatitis, which can obliterate whole populations of non-human primates.

More and more, pet owners looking for better treatment for their dog or cat are agreeing to take part in clinical studies.

Environmental toxicity testing still requires the use of some animals since estimating the risks to animals due to long term exposure in some simpler and cell-based systems is not definitive. However, a lot of progress has been made and such studies increasingly use larval and early life stage forms of fish rather than involve exposing sentient adult animals to potentially harmful substances.

Many people argue that we now have ways of conducting research without having to resort to animal experiments at all. Some types of animal experiments have been replaced with non-animal experiments. A good example is the use of artificial cell models instead of the Draize eye test in rabbits.

However, until such time that we have non-animal experiments that are proven to be reliable ways of safeguarding all aspects of human and animal health, some animal experiments are unavoidable.

Animal rights organisations advocate a view that animals have rights. However, rights are currently only afforded to humans because of the notion of personhood. These human rights are embodied in various laws and can be limited by other laws, for example when a person commits a criminal act or where there is an overriding public interest to do so.
Some people argue that there are species that should be afforded some rights on the basis of their relatedness to humans, their level of consciousness and ability to suffer. This is most commonly argued in the case of other great apes, such as gorillas and chimpanzees and there have been several attempts to afford these highly sentient animals some types of protection akin to human rights.
To threaten or endanger the lives of other human beings can never be justified and is not morally acceptable. This concept is captured by laws that make any such actions criminal.

There are other more peaceful ways of protesting and getting your message across to proponents of animal testing. The best approach is to provide constructive, scientific solutions to the problems and ethical concerns, raised by animal experimentation.

Most developed countries where animal experiments are conducted, have laws that regulate animal experiments that make scientists accountable to the government of the country. Within the UK, animal experiments are controlled by the Home Office.
All vertebrate animals, namely all species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. Recent changes to UK law included all cephalopods (octopus, squid, cuttlefish and nautilus) although previously only Octopus vulgaris was included.

The situation in other countries such as the US is less clear, although increasingly scientists conducting research attempt to implement humane practices.

Some scientists argue that there are laboratory animals that should only be used as a last resort – namely when tests in another vertebrate species would not be suitable nor sufficiently predictive of human responses to a substance or physiology. This argument has been put forward for dogs and primates.
There are a number of replacement alternatives that are already in regulatory use and others are being developed. Existing tests include those that use human blood rather than rabbits to test for bacterial contamination, the use of artificial skin models rather than the rabbit Draize test for irritants and a number of tests for the ability of substances to cause DNA damage that use bacterial, yeast or mammalian cells in culture.

Other replacement alternatives include the use of lower organisms to understand human diseases, and studies in human volunteers. The skin patch test is a good example of this.

In some cases, information can be used to generate computer models and virtual reality models of biological systems. These can be used to predict how a new substance may affect human health or physiology, or to look at the ways different biological systems interact.

Refinement alternatives include methods that make it possible to conduct less invasive studies in animals, such as sophisticated imaging techniques and methods that allow the best experimental design, such as statistical approaches.

Refinement alternatives focus on how the welfare of animals can be improved. These can include enriching the environments of laboratory animals so that it more closely resembles that of the animal’s natural environment. Providing exploratory toys, climbing frames, nesting material and group housing, are all examples of refinement.

Animal experiments are still used for practical classes and for anatomy demonstrations.

By demonstrating and video links, combined with using virtual dissection tools, it is possible to reduce dramatically the number of animals used in schools and other teaching institutions.