Bioethics in India: Proceedings of the International Bioethics Workshop in Madras: Biomanagement of Biogeoresources, 16-19 Jan. 1997, University of Madras; Editors: Jayapaul Azariah, Hilda Azariah, & Darryl R.J. Macer, Copyright Eubios Ethics Institute 1997.

42. Some Avoidable Issues in Bioethics in Relation to Laboratory Animals

G. Radhakrishna Pillai
Department of Life Sciences, University of Calicut, Malappuram, Kerala 673 635.


We always speak about bioethics, against killing of animals for laboratory purposes, etc. But at the same time we avoid some real bioethical issues. Many of them are avoidable through proper planning. Such situations occur frequently in our laboratories, especially in the laboratories in developing countries. Lack of proper training and seriousness among animal house staff, Financial stringency, space limitations, carelessness etc. increase the seriousness of these situations. Sometimes the laboratory animals do not get proper food or water. Instances are common in which these animals eat each other due to starvation. Many dissections are done without the use of proper methods of anaesthesia. Infections due to lack of cleanliness is common. The condition becomes severe due to malnutrition. For example the deficiency of vitamin C causes hair loss and wounds in the skin of guinea pigs. Different issues related to these area along with some suggestions for improvement, are made in this communication.

We human beings are fast moving to the 21st century. To cope with the needs of the coming century, we are making newer and newer findings and for this purpose we are spending much money and man power. Of these a major chunk is channeled for bioscience research. For biological research and some other related purposes, we use a number of laboratory animals. The use of animals for laboratory purpose increased manifold during the present century. During teaching also we use animals for demonstration purpose. At present, we are not in a position to completely avoid it. But at the same time we have to be "decent" to these poor animals. More over the animals most suitable for scientific work are those that are healthy, tame, comfortable and contented. Wastefulness or irresponsibility in dealing with them is as discreditable on scientific as on humanitarian grounds (1). If we make some planning, we can reduce the use of animals for laboratory purpose and the pain caused to them due to it. In this paper the author is trying to point out some real issues and their solutions. The paper is based on the personal experience of the author in the last a few years in different laboratories.

Different reasons can be assigned to the ethical issues related laboratory animals. The major reasons include scarcity of funds, space, lack of knowledge about the requirements of an animal house, carelessness, improperly trained or untrained animal house staff etc. The major problem that the researchers of the developing countries face is the scarcity of funds. They are forced to do so many things with a limited resource. Then they try to forget or discern some real issues. The cruelty to animals starts with the way we find a shelter for them. In many research centers, especially in our university departments, they are kept in small rooms. Different species of animals are kept in the same room. The rooms may be overcrowded. In addition to this the lazy animal- house staff will keep the windows and doors closed. They will not find some time to keep the windows and doors open. So the chance of air circulation is extremely limited. This will cause harm to the animals and the researchers who use the animal-house facility. In one instance the author was forced to ask one of the animal house staff members to suppose they were in the position of the animals. He felt it horrible. Even after that he behaved in the same way.

Standards and recommendations for cage sizes have been published by a number of authors or societies (2,3). Space required to house animals vary from species to species. Period of light/darkness, temperature, humidity etc. should also be under controlled level. But they are seldom followed. Financial stringency or administrative problems or space limitations will stand as hindrance in observing these guidelines. Some times a large number of animals will be housed together due to lack of space or insufficient number of cages. It is worth adding here that the smaller animals (such as rats, mice, chicks etc.) have a marked tendency to crowd. If large number are put into one cage, however capacious, they will huddle together and those underneath will be suffocated. Keeping the animals of different species together will pose some other problems. For example in one research centre the author witnessed the housing of dogs and guinea pigs in the same room or adjacent rooms. The dogs reared in the laboratory were healthy and larger in size. They bark with a very high sound. At the sight of an outsider or on hearing a strange sound, they all start barking together. The author himself was frightened on hearing this barking sound. I was very sure that the animals cannot come out and cause any harm to me. But I was afraid of such an incident whenever I went there and heard the barking sound. I am sure that this will frighten the guinea pigs housed near them. This will affect the behaviour and physiology of the animals.

Another bad effect of financial stringency is in providing feed to these animals. The problem becomes very acute at the end of every financial year. Due to the insufficiency of funds, the centers will be forced to reduce the feed ration given to these animals or they will be forced to adopt some cheaper food materials. Quantitative requirements are not the only factor in feed. Feeds provided should be eatable. Palatability, digestibility, physical nature of food and microbiological quality are the important characteristics that must be taken into account. The food can be vehicle for the spread of diseases among laboratory animals unless proper care is taken. The nutritional requirement vary from species to species (4,5). The food should be complete in all required nutrients. The fund sanctioning authorities also create some problems. They often ask so many unnecessary questions. They being totally unaware of the necessity of the proper feed to be given to the laboratory animals, will create problems in feed purchase. In some instance the author also faced such questioning by the authorities about the purchase of costly foods. Then we will be forced to adopt cheaper food materials.

This will be harmful to the animals and also to our research. It may cause malnutrition problems. For example guinea pigs given a diet deficient in vitamin C will develop deficiency syndromes (6). The animal will start losing weight, body hair and develop wounds in the skin. I have observed this in a number of our Research Centers.

Another issue related to food is due to the laziness of the animal house staff. They will not be so particular to give food and water to these animals on time, especially on holidays. During holidays they abstain from duty. So some time these animals will be forced to live without food or water for a few days. There were instances in which rats eat each others due to starvation. During starvation rats are reported to show cannibalism.

In some laboratories frogs are obtained in lumps. They will be utilized for experiments one by one. Usually it happens when these frogs are used for demonstration purpose in undergraduate or graduate classes. So these animals will be kept in water tanks without giving any food for days or weeks. Usually the students or the teachers will not think about the starving animals.

Bottles used to give water to laboratory animals can also pose some problems. In many laboratories the bottles are not washed properly. Every day the staff of the animal house just fill the bottles from tap water and place them in the position. The tap water may not be pure always. It contains dust particles, mud etc. It will settle on the sides of the bottle and the bottle becomes ugly. Minute deposits of girt can cause the valves either to stop delivering or to flood. Moreover fungus, algae etc. may also grow on the walls of the bottle. The drinking spout may not be of proper type. Some times it may cause leakage or block. The result is that the animals have to make much strain to get some water.

Lack of cleanliness is another problem. Less space in animal house, scarcity of staff, their irregularity or irresponsibility, scarcity of materials required for maintaining cleanliness, cause this problem. In certain laboratories the animal-house staff are not ready to clean the cages and the rooms properly and regularly. They do it without any sincerity. Sometimes there will be lack of materials required viz., disinfectants, bedding materials like paper cuttings, saw dust etc. So the animals have to remain in the same cage for a number of days or weeks. In most circumstances nonhygienic bedding materials constitute the greatest hazard for an animal unit. The condition becomes worsened during certain experimental conditions like induced diabetes. Diabetes will be induced in the animals by some means. The diabetic animals drink more water and excrete large quantity of urine. This makes the cages wet. In such cases the cages should be changed frequently. But normally it does not happen. Due to increased consumption, frequent filling of water bottles will also become a necessity. The bottles will not be filled on time. The animal house staffs purposefully avoid filling the bottles because if they fill the bottles, the animals will drink the water and excrete more urine. This will make the cages wet and they have to clean them. So they reduce the water supply. Hence the animals are forced to remain thirsty in a wet atmosphere. The author has seen diabetic rats remaining completely wet and ugly. As the cages become wet, the bedding materials used in the cages as adsorbent will stick on the body of the animals. In advanced stages of diabetes, they become lean also. Witnessing such a situation is a heart breaking one.

Two years ago the author visited an Institute which concentrates on diabetes research. There the rats were made diabetic by injecting alloxan/ streptozotosin. After having made them diabetic, they were given injections of some drugs believed to have anti-diabetic property. Some times it would not be a success. They would be given injections every day. Finally it would result in the formation of wounds in the animals body. The wounds would not heal due to diabetes. It may lead to gangrene. Think of the condition of these rats. They remain through out the day completely wet, thirsty, hungry and suffering the pain from the wounds. Could you imagine yourself or any human being in such a situation. The answer will be no. Why we are so cruel to these animals ? Can't we clean the cages on time ? Can't we provide them with proper food and water? Can't we take care of the wounds of these poor animals ?

Another issue which came to the notice of the author arises from the actions of the researchers or animal-house staff. Our busy schedule has its effect on our dealing with the laboratory animals also. We try to avoid things which cause inconvenience to us. In this process we do not think the inconvenience or pain caused to others. The same is our attitude to animals also. Here the author is trying to suggest a few examples. The researchers took blood from the orbital sinus. For draining blood from the sinus, we should anaesthetize the animal by giving ether / or by some other means. But the researchers avoid it only because it consume some time. Instead they hold the animal very firmly. As they try to puncture the orbital sinus the animals try to escape due to fear and pain. Using animals for such purposes without using anesthetics are prohibited by the "protection of animals (Anesthetics) act of 1954 & 1964." But still it continues. Regarding this I once witnessed a funny situation. In one of our researchers in our Institute was trying to take blood from the orbital sinus of a rat with the help of an animal house staff. The animal house technician was holding the animals firmly. It was a healthy one. It struggled to escape and scratched the hands of the technician. As the animal struggled to escape, the technician held it more and more firmly. Finally he drained blood and let the animal go. But it did not. By that time it died of suffocation / organ damage / internal blood clot. They were trying to drain blood without killing the animal. But finally what happened. If they killed the animal, the pain would have lasted only for a few minutes. But here the animal suffered pain for more than ten minutes and it ultimately died. Unscientific draining of blood from the orbital sinus may sometimes affect the eyes and cause loss of vision.

Another painful situation arises during sacrifice or dissection of the animals. Most researchers prefer to do cervical dislocation for making the animal unconscious before dissection. But many do not know how to do it properly. Some give a blow on the back of the medulla oblongata. The blow may not be on the correct position. Some times the blow will be on the nose , some times it may be on the back bone or on the middle of the head. This result in acute pain, bleeding through nose etc. In certain cases even if the blow is not on the correct position, the animal shows signs of unconsciousness. Then the researchers start the dissection. Some time after starting dissection the animal may become active. That is the researcher was dissecting the animal in a live condition without the help of any intoxicating agent. Imagine how cruel it was.

In some cases the researchers had to kill a number of animals at a time. They take the animals together in a cage and start killing them one by one in front of others. Have you ever thought of the feelings of the animals which witness the cruelty to other animals around them. More over some more cruel persons drain the blood of the killed animals into the cages where other animals waiting for their fate are kept. Think how cruel we are. Like us these animals also have the right to fresh air, good drinking water and food. Since we are keeping them in our custody for our use, it is our duty to provide them with these things. Now a days we can not avoid using animals for laboratory purpose. But at the same time we can be little more merciful and loving.

To avoid these situations there should be a proper awareness among the people who deal with laboratory animals. The administrators also should be made aware of the needs of an animal house. Proper fund allocation is another thing and the allotted funds should be made available for its purpose. The animal house staff should be given proper training. So many acts or rules are there regarding the proper handling of animals or preventing cruelty to animals. But many of them are insufficiently far reaching in its requirements or are not implemented (1). Giving of statutory force to many of the requirements remain unfulfilled. There should be a supervisory committee to manage and supervise all these things. An International or National or to the minimum a national forum should be set up for this purpose and the laboratories using animals for research or any other purpose can be asked to follow a code of conduct. A licensing system can be introduced. The facilities that should be there in an animal house can be well defined. Specific educational qualifications can be prescribed for animal house staff. There should be a training Institute at least in each country, where training will be given to the animal house staff. Only those persons with proper training can be appointed to handle animals. The supervisory committee can monitor this and give proper directions to them. If any Institute is found violating the code of conduct, their license to use animals can be withdrawn. But this should be done with proper planning to avoid loophole and misuse.

1. The UFAW Handbook on the care and management of laboratory animals., Edited by UFAW, Churchill Livingstone, 1976.
2. Porter G., Scott PP and Walker AIT., "Caging standards for rats and mice recommendations by the Laboratory Animal Science Association Working Party on Caging and Penning", Lab. Anim, 4: 61-66, 1970.
3. Research Defence Society, Guidance notes on the Law Relating to Experiments on Animals, 2nd Edition, London, Research Defence Society, 1974.
4. Cassidy J, "The commercial manufacture of compressed diets for Laboratory animals", Proc. Nutr. Soc, 16: 63-66, 1957.
5. Charles RT, Stevenson DE, and Walker AIT, "The sterilisation of laboratory animal diet by ethylene oxide", Lab. Anim. Care, 15: 321-327, 1965.
6. Patterson JS., "The guinea pig or cavy" In The UFAW Handbook on the care and management of laboratory animals, 4th Edition, Edinburgh: Churchill-Livingston, 1972.

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