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Alternatives to Laboratory Animals - ATLA

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Frequently asked questions

How many animals are used for experiments in the UK?


Scientific procedures carried out on animals in UK laboratories are currently at the highest level since the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act came into force in 1986.

Home Office Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals for 2012 (the latest available) have shown an increase. In spite of regulations that state alternatives should be used wherever they are available, the number of procedures carried out on animals in UK laboratories is currently going up each year.

The 2012 figures are slightly misleading, in that the reason for the rise is entirely explained by the dominance of genetically altered (GA) animals. The definition, as used in the statistics, includes genetically modified animals and those carrying harmful mutations. Breeding GA animals rose from 43% to 48% of all procedures and they were involved in 59% of the total number. If breeding was not included, the actual total of procedures would have fallen by 2%.

The statistics for 2012 show that just over 4.1 million procedures were conducted on 4.0 million animals. This is 8% more than in 2011, and is 45% more procedures than the smallest number ever conducted, in 2001.

The main types of animals used were mice, fish and rats, which together were involved in 94% of all the procedures. In contrast primates, cats and dogs account for 0.1% of procedures. The largest increases in procedures in 2012 involved primates (up 22% to 3,020), mice (up 14% to 3,058,821), guinea pigs (up 10% to 12,740) and dogs (up 6% to 4843). Notable decreases were in procedures involving reptiles and amphibians (down 13% to 14,210), fish (down 11% to 500,830) and rabbits (down 10% to 13,866).




How many animals are used in experiments worldwide?


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.


What species are used in experiments?


Invertebrate and vertebrate animal species are used in scientific experiments.


Invertebrate species include fruit flies, nematode worms and some types of crabs. The majority of these animals are believed to have a limited capacity to suffer in a way that gives rise to ethical concerns, because of their lack of a central nervous system.


This is not true of vertebrate species. Fish, rats and mice are  used in a large proportion of experiments.


Other mammals that are used include dogs (mainly beagles), rabbits and non-human primates such as some species of macaques and marmosets although some research still involves experiments on great apes, such as chimpanzees. (Although experiments are not carried out on great apes in the UK.)


What types or experiments are conducted on animals?


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



Is the use of animals in experiments ethical?


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


Here's a story that might help put this into perspective. Three mountain climbers are dangling from a rope which cannot support their weights. It will only support the weight of two people. The person lowest down in the chain is seriously injured and likely to die soon. The choices are:


- risk death for all three climbers or

- cut the rope between the seriously injured person and the other two so that one person will die saving the other two.


UK law will say that the second option is the "lesser of two evils" so that where there is a need to use animals, experiments on a few might be ethical if there are benefits to the rest of the species, the environment or humans, so long as good experimental practices are used and the animals are treated humanely.


Have animal experiments improved human medicine?


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.



Have animal experiments helped to protect animals and the environment?



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.


Is it still necessary to use animals in experiments?


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.


Do animals have rights?


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.


Animal welfare proponents argue that since all animals have a right to life, they must be treated as humanely as possible.


The opponents of animal rights and welfare hold the view that humans are the supreme beings and are the only species worthy of rights of any kind and that all other species are inferior and thus can be used to benefit human kind.



Should animals have rights?


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.


Sometimes researchers suffer at the hands of animal rights activists. What is the morality of direct action to protect animals?


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.


Are there laws that protect laboratory animals?


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.  

Which laboratory species are protected?


All vertebrate animals, namely all species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. In the UK, some embryonic and larval forms are not protected but in countries such as Germany, they are. 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.


Do some species deserve to be treated with more care than others?


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


Is there a list of companies that make products that have not been tested on animals?


There are lists of companies that sell products that have not been tested on animals.


In most cases, the products or similar products will have at an earlier point in time, been tested on animals.


Medicines are still tested on animals, so in general, cruelty-free products are only cosmetics and toiletries. In the EU, testing of finished cosmetic products or selling cosmetic products tested on animals, that were produced outside of the EU is now prohibited by the Cosmetics Directive.





What are the alternatives to using animals?


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.


How can these alternatives be used in schools, colleges and universities?


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.


Can I get some further information?


You can contact FRAME or search the website for further information on any topic.