Welfare of laboratory animals is of major importance to the bioscience sector and their animal technicians. It is their obligation to make sure animals held in research establishments receive the highest standards of care. But when new practices are identified, how can we ensure that they are understood and introduced for the better of the animals? That’s what John Waters’ recent award-winning work looked to address.
The Andrew Blake Tribute Award recognises animal technicians throughout the UK and their work in improving the already high standards of welfare. The award is vital so that good welfare practices or improvements carried out by technicians are disseminated outside the industry for others to see their contribution to the welfare of animals within the UK.
Winning the award for 2017 is an absolute honour and privilege. A technician's role is to provide animals with the best care and welfare possible, and this is achieved every day by a group of dedicated individuals called animal technicians. To be recognised as somebody who has worked to improve welfare of laboratory mice over the past 12 months is something I'm very proud of. My contribution to winning the award for 2017 is about the animals we care so much about, and helping other technicians by showing how to carry out the new techniques with the minimum of disruption in such an important area of research.
In 2010, funded by BBSRC, researchers from Mammalian Behaviour & Evolution Group, University of Liverpool published a paper entitled "Taming Anxiety in Laboratory Mice". This outlined the significant improvements to the welfare of laboratory mice that can be seen by avoiding the traditional tail handling method and using an alternative.
Picking up mice by the base of the tail has historically been accepted as the method of choice for handling mice, but there has been an absence of any scientific data to substantiate this method of handling. This has been passed down through generations of technicians without any thought as to the impact it has upon laboratory mice. The findings of the study were that mice have high levels of anxiety when picked up by the tail. By offering two alternative methods, either cupping the mouse on an open hand or using a plastic tunnel, the study was nationally recognised as work with the potential to improve the lives of millions of laboratory mice, as well as lead to more reliable scientific data.
Animal technicians are responsible for the day-to-day care of animals in the laboratory and handling the mice on a daily basis. The use of alternative methods to handle mice in the laboratory will only be of benefit if carried out correctly. To ensure this, the technicians need guidance from somebody who has implemented the methods, recognised common mistakes made and could offer guidance on how to overcome any problems.
My work focused on understanding the range of concerns and potential issues across a broad range of animal technicians and facilities, and the provision of simple, clear and practical advice to support implementation of the welfare improvements.
To understand the range of concerns and potential issues, I organised a workshop on mouse handling at the Institute of Animal Technology Annual Congress 2012. In addition to implementing the new methods in my own local animal facility, I conducted two small studies to gain some objective data on potential issues of concern. I then helped to put together a tutorial on mouse handling, both by providing the technician's perspective on practical handling issues and by filming appropriate video clips with associated commentary to demonstrate best practice in different scenarios and how to avoid common problems that we had identified.
With valuable support from NC3Rs to provide a web-based resource truly available to all (nationally and internationally), a tutorial is now hosted on the NC3Rs website. Statistics gained from NC3Rs for the first six weeks since its launch show that the tutorial is already being used in a wide range of countries in addition to the UK. Feedback from fellow technicians in the United States has further enhanced the hope that animals outside of the UK will also benefit from the non-aversive methods of handling that have been developed.
The success of the tutorial, based on how much it has been used and feedback from animal technicians, has emphasised the importance of not just identifying new practices but in supporting the adoption of them. Simple adjustments, like the change of handling, has already made a difference to mice throughout research establishments. Eliminating picking mice up by the tail will lead to lower anxiety but, on a more important note, the mice will be more willing to interact with its handler. Technicians can make this small alteration to their handling knowing that it has a positive effect on the animals in their care.
John Waters is the Named Animal Care & Welfare Officer at the Mammalian Behaviour & Evolution Group, Leahurst, University of Liverpool.
He started working with laboratory animals in 1990 when he became a trainee animal technician. He has worked within many areas of research but has found behaviour and welfare the most interesting as you can learn a lot about animals by how they behave. He is the winner of the 2017 Andrew Blake Tribute Award.