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Bearing the animal in mind

Animal husbandry at the University of Basel: Bedding and nesting material ensure that mice are kept in a species-appropriate manner. (Photo: University of Basel, Philippe Wiget)

At the University of Basel, a large team of experts looks after the welfare of animals used in experiments. The aim is to minimize the stress placed on the animals. This is achieved by means of species-appropriate animal husbandry, careful planning of experiments and close monitoring of each animal.

17 January 2022

Animal husbandry at the University of Basel: Bedding and nesting material ensure that mice are kept in a species-appropriate manner. (Photo: University of Basel, Philippe Wiget)

The University of Basel is one of the world’s leading institutions in biological and biomedical research. Despite all the progress in this area, animal experiments continue to play an essential role in the investigation of complex diseases, such as cancer, or the development of new therapies. Some 20% of all researchers at the University of Basel carry out experiments involving vertebrates, of which 97% are mice and the remainder rats and fish.

Each individual mouse counts

The well-being of the animals is the responsibility of a large team that cares for them at five modern animal facilities under the leadership of veterinarian Dr. Kerstin Broich. An important part of this work falls to the around 60 animal caretakers and staff who care for the mice seven days a week. They not only provide the animals with food, water and fresh bedding, but also take a careful look at each individual mouse: is it active, are its ears directed forward, is its coat smooth? “The trained eyes of our animal caretakers can immediately tell whether a mouse is well or not,” says veterinarian Dr. Anne Zintzsch, one of three animal welfare officers at the University of Basel.

If something is wrong, the caretakers make a note in a database that, among other things, documents the condition of each individual mouse. The researchers or the animal husbandry staff then take the necessary action, such as the administration of painkillers. Everyone at the animal facilities wears protective clothing to avoid bringing in germs. Hygiene is of the utmost priority – and every cage therefore has its own ventilation system. This hygiene and standardized husbandry are vital in order to ensure that the researchers obtain comparable results in their experiments.

Variety despite standardization

Although this results in certain restrictions, the animals are still able to go about their most important natural behaviors. For example, they cohabit in social groups of three to five mice – as is appropriate to the species – and receive suitable material such as paper towels to build a nest, hard food pellets to gnaw on, and sometimes a “mouse house” as a hideout. “We always consider how we can provide the animals with some variety in their everyday lives,” says Zintzsch. With this in mind, the animal facilities are currently taking part in a project to test different materials for keeping mice occupied.

The researchers also use genetically modified mice, particularly for research into serious diseases such as cancer or muscular atrophy. In the event that this genetic modification – or the nature and duration of the experiments – places stress on the animals, they are given painkillers, more frequent bedding changes or particularly soft food as required.

Minimal stress for the best results

Animal welfare is taken into account not only during animal husbandry but also during the experiments themselves. All researchers and staff involved in animal experiments must attend courses in which they learn how to handle the animals correctly. As part of these courses, they also practice skills such as how to anesthetize the mice correctly and how to gently restrain them.

Incidentally, the researchers think about animal welfare long before the experiments begin. To obtain authorization for an animal experiment, they are required to justify why the research question cannot be answered without the use of animals, and whether the knowledge obtained outweighs the suffering inflicted on the animal. In addition, the University of Basel’s 3R Coordinator Dr. Anke Rohlfs facilitates the implementation of the 3R principles – replace, reduce, refine – and advises the research groups.

In the application for authorization, researchers must also set out precisely what they will do to minimize stress on the animals, including the choice of the correct painkillers and anesthetic techniques. They are advised by the university’s three animal welfare officers – veterinarians Dr. Bettina Oswald and Dr. Susi Heiden in addition to Anne Zintzsch – since it is important to minimize the stress on the animal without adversely affecting the experiment. “We always have to strike a balance in our work,” says Zintzsch. “On the one hand, we’re here to support the researchers; on the other, our focus is on the well-being of the animals.”

For Zintzsch, the basis for the responsible handling of the animals is what is known as the Culture of Care: “It’s not enough simply to follow the rules and regulations.” Everyone involved should constantly and proactively bear the animals’ well-being in mind – whether that’s the researchers who carefully plan experiments and evaluate data, or the staff at the animal facilities who develop new ideas for animal husbandry. Ultimately, this shared fundamental attitude benefits the quality of the research.

Initiative to ban animal and human experiments

On 13 February, Switzerland will vote on the federal popular initiative “Yes to the ban on animal and human experiments – Yes to research that brings safety and progress”. It aims to ban all experiments on animals and humans, as well as the trade, import and export of products, such as medicines, for which animal testing or clinical trials have been carried out.

Swissuniversities, the umbrella organization of Swiss higher education institutions, warns of a medicine and research ban. Accepting the initiative would prevent above all biomedical research and the development of new medical treatment methods. The issues at stake include the high quality of healthcare and responsible research in Switzerland in the service of the population and the environment.

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