2010 laboratory animal use statistics for Great Britain: welfare implications

Andrew Knight

In July the 2010 laboratory animal use statistics for Great Britain were released by the Home Office. Just over 3.7 million scientific procedures using animals were commenced in 2010, an increase of 3% (105,000) compared with the previous year. 3.6 million animals were used for the first time in procedures started in 2010, an increase of 3% (101,000). The number of procedures is always slightly higher than animal numbers, due to re-use of some animals.

Laboratory animal numbers have steadily risen over the last decade. There were 1.0 million more procedures than in 2000 (37%), mostly accounted for by the use of an additional 921,000 animals in breeding procedures to produce genetically altered animals. Such animals include those whose genomes have been artificially modified during the initial stages (GM animals), rather than through natural breeding or mutation, as well as animals with harmful genetic mutations. The maintenance and expansion of all genetically altered strains requires further breeding, however. Excluding such breeding procedures, there were still 4% (89,000) more procedures than in 2000.

Consistent with these trends, the 2010 increases when compared to 2009 were largely due to greater use of genetically altered animals. The increase in procedures using GM animals was 6% (88,000), and the increase in procedures using animals with harmful genetic mutations was 4% (17,000). Most of these increases were attributable to an 8% (73,000) increase in the use of GM mice in breeding procedures.

Within the 3.7 million total procedures in 2010, 1.6 million procedures (43%) used GM animals and 400,000 procedures (11%) used animals with harmful genetic mutations. Procedures using such genetically altered animals exceeded those using normal animals for the second year in a row. Genetically normal animals accounted for the remaining 1.7 million procedures (virtually the same level as in 2010), slightly less than half (46%) of the 3.7 million total.

The welfare implications of such heavy reliance on GM animals are disturbing. Particularly in the initial stages, the production of GM strains involves surgical procedures and significant physiological challenges. It is also an inherently inefficient process, frequently resulting in a high proportion of discarded animals, with the welfare of the survivors more likely to be adversely affected than for non-GM strains.

The use of non-human primates rose by 10% (425, to a total of 4,688) when compared to 2009. The advanced emotional, psychological and social capacities of primates markedly increase their risks of suffering within laboratory environments and procedures. They have advanced capacities to understand and remember that certain people, tools or procedures are likely to cause pain and distress, and their ability to anticipate future aversive experiences is likely to compound the distress such events may cause.

Sixty nine per cent of all procedures (2.6 million) did not utilise any form of anaesthesia. This was an increase of 6% (154,000) compared to 2009, and represented the greatest number of procedures conducted without anaesthesia since records commenced in 1988. From 1988 to 2010, the proportion of procedures conducted without anaesthesia fluctuated from approximately 59 to 69%. Analgesic use was not reported.

Whilst anaesthetic and analgesic use undoubtedly alters normal physiology, claims that such alterations are sufficiently important to hypotheses under investigation to warrant their exclusion, require careful scrutiny. Despite increasing recognition that pain relief improves both animal welfare and research quality – via minimisation of pain-related physiological, psychological and behavioural distortions – pain monitoring and analgesic provision remains less than optimal within many research protocols.

The steady increases in the use of GM animals and those with harmful mutations, of non-human primates, and of procedures conducted without any form of anaesthesia, several of which are now at record highs, demonstrate that neither the British government nor its research community are serious about reducing the use of animals, or of procedures that pose the greatest threats to animal welfare.