This summer, I applied for and was accepted into the Veterinary Summer Research Training Program. I get to work in a lab doing research for approximately 12 weeks, then present my findings at University Poster Day and at National Convention at the end of the summer. While I can’t disclose what research I am doing right now, I did want to talk about one of the key ideas surrounding animal welfare in research: The Three R’s.
- Replace. Replacement is the idea that for any experiment, we should only use animals for testing if there is no other model that would be similarly suited. Scientists should actively work to find ways to avoid the use of animals in their studies if at all possible. In fact, the concept of replacement is so strongly regarded that researchers must conduct a database search that shows there are no acceptable alternatives before gaining approval for any experiment that uses animal models. The NIH published their own database specifically for this purpose, known as the ALTBIB: Alternatives to Animal Testing. You can find out more about that here!
- Reduce. Reduction, of course, means that researchers should use as few animals as possible to still get statistically significant results. Before beginning any experiment using animals, the scientist must determine how many animals will be used, how many will be controls, etc. and that this is the lowest number of animals possibly required to get results. All of this information must be submitted for approval to that institution’s regulatory board before the project can begin.
- Refine. Refinement means bettering our research methods so that we can limit pain or distress to the animal. This is a very broad category, but it can range from teaching animal care staff how to assess pain in laboratory animals, the use of better analgesics, changing anesthetic protocol to have faster induction and recovery times, and more. This might also include better habitats for each animal. For example, rats are social creatures and often prefer to have a buddy in their enclosure. Reducing stress and pain in lab animals is not only morally the right thing to do, but it also makes sure that your research results are not thrown off. If testing the efficacy of a new drug, stressed animals may respond much differently than they normally would, causing confusion with your results.
Even if you don’t plan on going into laboratory animal medicine, it is still vital that you have a key understanding of the concept of the Three Rs. Questions about animal welfare and research are often asked during veterinary school interviews, and you will be expected to know what they mean and why they are important. Additionally, as a future veterinary professional your community will look to you for informed advice on how they should view hot topics like animal research.