Laboratory Animals Regulations: How Much Space Is Needed?

How Much Space Should Lab Animals Receive?

Laboratory animals have done a lot for humanity over the years, helping us find treatments and cures for a variety of human diseases. The U.S. is now trying to repay lab animals for their service -- even if it is involuntary service -- by enacting the first update to its "Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals" since 1996.

That update, according to the U.S. Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, "empowers continued advancement in the humane care and use of vertebrate animals in research, research training, and biological testing."

The guide's latest edition, which was unveiled last year and just took effect this month, includes new space requirements for a wide range of lab animals, from rats and rabbits to chickens and chimpanzees. Animal-rights advocates have spent years pushing for such changes, and they largely welcome the new rules.

But as NPR reports, some researchers are bristling at the idea of buying new cages for thousands of rats.

"The effect would be, we would have to buy more of this caging, and our estimate was somewhere around $300,000 worth of caging, at least," Bob Adams, the head of Johns Hopkins University's main lab-rat complex, tells NPR. "Bottom line is, there is more work, there is more cost for everybody, for our whole operation."

It's not that scientists are ambivalent about animal welfare, adds Joseph Thulin from the Medical College of Wisconsin. "I would not want anyone to think that the research community doesn't want to implement new guidelines because they don't care about their animals," he tells NPR. "That is not the case at all." There's simply a shortage of research on rodent housing, he says, creating doubt that expanding cage sizes "will have any measurable positive impact on the animals."

Research institutions must complete at least one self-evaluation under the new guidelines before Dec. 31, 2012, and there is some confusion about how much wiggle room they'll have. A consultant who helped draft the rules describes them as merely "recommendations," for example, yet the OLAW website warns that "Blanket, program-wide departures from the Guide for reasons of convenience, cost, or other non-animal welfare considerations are not acceptable."

And while critics decry the "uncertainty" this creates, some animal-rights advocates express concern the U.S. may not fully enforce the new rules. "If we are going to be using millions or tens of millions of rodents in this country, we do have an obligation to the welfare of these animals," Kathleen Conlee of the Humane Society of the United States tells NPR. The HSUS and similar groups "hope that the National Institutes of Health will strictly enforce their recommendations in the guide," she adds.

The Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare will take public comments on the new rules through the end of this month.

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