Lab rats and science mice: Why are we using animals in research?

Philosopher and writer Dr Eva Meijer has adopted 25 mice as part of a pilot project to re-home smaller laboratory animals.

Mice communicate using sounds, touch, facial expressions and gestures, Meijer tells Cosmos.

“They sit tail to tail when they like each other,” she explains. “Sometimes when they go into the nest together, they will briefly wrap their tails around each other, like holding someone’s hand.”

“Some of them make beautiful nests,” she says, describing how Bram and Wezel, two really old mice, honed their craft after other mice from their group died. 

“It was like they had a new hobby in their old age, they began building these really great nests, sort of flower-shaped […] really magnificent. Other mice don’t do that.” 

In her paper, ‘Learning to See Mice’ published in Humanimalia, the University of Amsterdam researcher examines the complex individual and social lives of these small rodents, their sense of community and care for others when they fall ill, and what this means for the way humans perceive and treat them. 

“Watching them every day, watching their social relations with one another, their individual personalities, really changed my view of mice. And it also changed my view of life. Because basically there’s no difference between the life of a mouse and the life of a human being,” Meijer says. 

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Bram and Wezel in their flower-shaped nest / Credit: Eva Meijer

Accounting for rats and mice in research

In Australia, more than 700,000 laboratory mice and 30,000 rats are used in research annually in states that publicly report statistics (VictoriaNew South Wales and Tasmania). When other states are accounted for, the national total likely exceeds 1 million rodents, animal welfare advocates say. 

Most rodents are used for studying biology or human diseases, or are bred in excess of requirements. Almost all die as part of the process. 

Advocates for non-animal alternatives, the RSPCA and Humane Research Australia, say Australia lags in public reporting on the use of animals in scientific research. 

And as other countries look to alternative non-animal methods, Australia is dragging its tail on science as well as animal welfare.

Bella Lear is chief executive of Understanding Animal Research Oceania, an organisation established to explain why animals are used in science and how society benefits. 

She says genomic research marked a key turning point for rodents, especially mice. 

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More than 700,000 mice are used in research annually in Australia / Credit: Supplied

“The mouse genome was the first to be sequenced,” she says. As a consequence, “a lot of really fundamental research on genetics relied on mouse models.” 

This meant many medical researchers working with rats switched to mice, she says. Mice are also smaller, easier to keep and breed quickly, allowing researchers to study successive generations.

Rats tend to be used when scientists need a larger animal, say for complex surgery, Lear says. They are often used in psychology or behavioural studies. “Rats are very intelligent. They’re trainable. It’s possible to get rats to do a lot of tasks.”

Greater protections for ‘pocket dogs’?

Johanna Schumacher is the acting welfare officer for the Australian Rat Fanciers Society. 

People call them “pocket dogs”, she says, because the animals are clever, playful, can learn their name and enjoy human interaction. 

Like Meijer’s mice, Schumacher says each rat has a distinct personality.

Based on everything known about rats, philosophers argue they deserve similar protections to primates.

Dr Megan LaFolette is executive director of the 3Rs Collaborative – an organisation dedicated to improving science for people and animals. Before taking on the role, LaFolette’s research focused on improving the lives of lab rats; by tickling them.

When rats are tickled, they emit a high-pitched sound a bit like laughing. It’s why neuroscientists use rats when studying playfulness. 

Running the ruler over animal research

In Australia, research involving animals is covered by the Australian code for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes, published by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and relevant state or territory animal welfare laws.

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Rats are playful and make vocalisations when tickled / Credit: Supplied by Dr Megan LaFolette

The NHMRC says the code covers everything from teaching to environmental studies, research, diagnosis, product testing and manufacturing biological products.

Researchers must seek approval from an Animal Ethics Committee and apply the ‘3Rs’ – showing there is no alternative to using animals (‘replacement’), minimising the number of animals (‘reduction’) and improving animals’ wellbeing (‘refinement’). 

NSW reports examples of applying the 3Rs: the use of cell cultures and mathematical models; pilot studies on fewer animals; behavioural enrichments, anaesthesia and re-homing.

LaFolette’s organisation works with American researchers and institutions on solutions. She says examples include using alternatives like artificial intelligence software or organ-on-a-chip (engineered tissues designed to mimic human tissue), careful experimental design and improving care practices.

Mice, being prey animals, don’t like being picked up by their tails, she says. So, they’re encouraging researchers to use a tunnel instead, because mice like enclosed spaces and it gives them a sense of choice.

Suzie Fowler is the Chief Science Officer at the RSPCA, which advocates for greater transparency and scrutiny of research involving animals; funding for alternatives and best practice in animal welfare.

“Our goal at the RSPCA is to one day not see animals needed for use in medical research anymore,” she says.

Fowler, a veterinarian by training who has worked within universities, says Australia lags in best practice on national reporting and funding for alternatives.

“Some of the Scandinavian countries and the UK are really progressive and rapidly moving to non-animal alternatives, but also pushing for really strong justification where research has to be done.”

“The RSPCA would like to see more funding available so early career researchers don’t have to follow in the footsteps of their supervisors and can be supported [in the use of non-animal alternatives].”

In addition to the direct effects on animals, Fowler says practices often take a toll on the mental health of the humans involved, especially animal welfare staff.

“It’s really hard for people who are caring for these animals,” she says, speaking from experience.

“Every time you pick up a cage, you are responsible for the lives of the animals in that cage. You have to ensure when you put them back that you’re happy, that they’re happy, healthy and running around. And you’ll see them again tomorrow. That’s a huge responsibility for someone who’s probably looking after maybe 3, 4, 5 or 600 cages in a day. And then see the end result of the research, or having to kill the animals.”

Don’t be cruel

A 2022 NSW inquiry recommends two research practices involving rodents – the forced swim test and smoking tower test – be rapidly phased out.

The report describes the forced swim test used for evaluating antidepressants as “placing a mouse or rat in a transparent cylinder of lukewarm water where they swim and attempt to climb the walls of the cylinder before becoming immobile and floating. The animals are generally removed after a set time, but some animals die after the test from aspirating water.”

The smoking tower – also singled out due to cruelty concerns – involves forcing mice to inhale cigarette smoke or other hazardous substances for extended periods while restrained in a tower structure. 

Humane Research Australia is campaigning for both practices to be outlawed, not only for ethical reasons, but also concerns about the validity of the science and lack of transferability between rodents and human physiology.

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Mouse in a smoking tower tube / Credit: Supplied

Learning to see mice and rats

A recent survey of public attitudes by the University of Adelaide shows the majority (70%) of Australians conditionally support the use of animals in scientific research, provided there is no alternative and the animals don’t suffer.

But when people were asked about specific types of animals for medical research benefiting humans, only mice and rats were considered acceptable by the majority (59%). Whereas primates, dogs, cats and native animals had the lowest levels of support.

University of Melbourne psychologist Professor Brock Bastian says public attitudes to lab mice and rats can be partly explained by cognitive dissonance.

“The dissonance is the discomfort created through an inconsistency in our beliefs and our behaviour. Thinking animals can think, feel and have pain; and also causing harm to them. This is a conflict,” he says.

Ethical considerations are also likely to be impacted by the public’s perceptions of rodents as pests, and feelings of disgust. 

Will greater transparency about the use of animals in research change how the public perceives lab rats and mice?

Bastian isn’t sure. His research suggests people are more likely to adjust their beliefs to deal with discomfort, than change behaviour.

Scratching the surface

A new, voluntary Openness Agreement could begin gnawing away at the lack of transparency.

In August, 30 Australian research institutions and organisations pledged greater openness in their use of animals. There are more than 40 universities in Australia and dozens of research agencies.

The Openness Agreement aims to better inform the public about why and how animals are used in research, and bring greater scrutiny to efforts to replace, reduce and refine practices.

Dr Malcolm France, a veterinarian who has worked in animal research and convenes the ANZCCART Openness Agreement working group, says the model pioneered by the UK and adopted by eight other countries, is a tried and tested approach.

“The primary goal is to try and demystify animal research and perhaps correct some of the misunderstandings about it. And allow the public to be in the best position to make up their own mind,” he says.

He sees the pledge as the beginning of a journey. “We are looking at a fairly major change in the way the scientific community has engaged with a broader community about animal research.” 

Globally there are moves to phase out using animals in science and medical research. Europe aims to fully replace all animals used for scientific and educational purposes. India and the US have removed requirements for animals to be used in drug testing.

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Re-homing lab animals is small change which can improve their lives/ One of Eva Meijer’s adopted mice / Credit: Eva Meijer

In the meantime, small changes can improve the lives of lab animals.

Lear says there’s a very strong move in Australia and New Zealand towards re-homing, although the statistics tell a different story. In New Zealand – which publicly reports these details – a total of 145,107 mice and 26,097 rats died as a result of research or excess breeding in 2021, while 1 mouse, and 28 rats were re-homed.

Rachel Smith from Humane Research Australia says most researchers are probably doing their best, but they often lack support to adopt non-animal methodologies.

She says change requires a systemic shift across science institutions and bureaucracies ensuring funding, peer review and systems support alternative methods.

Lear says, “nobody uses animals in research because they want to […] this is all about creating good science that benefits people, that benefits animals, that benefits and protects our environment. That’s the aim behind all this kind of work.”

“People have good aims and we would all love to see a day where the animals aren’t necessary to achieve them.”

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