Articles > Lab experiments “terrifying” for animals

Lab experiments “terrifying” for animals

The most harmless-seeming lab experiments spark
panic in the creatures going through them, according to a new report. But
supporters of animal medical research, who say the work saves lives,
questioned the findings. 

The report, based on a review
of past scientific studies, claims that mice, rabbits, rats,
beagles, geese, and other animals all show measurable levels of stress in
response to routine laboratory procedures.

These procedures, including
blood draws and use of stomach tubes, are “terrifying” for animals,
according to a press release announcing the findings. The statement was issued
by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington, D.C.-based
nonprofit group.

Jonathan Balcombe, a research
consultant for the group, authored the report finding that physiological stress
levels go up among animals undergoing experiments.

Even simple contact with
laboratory workers is scary for animals, said Balcombe. “There is no such
thing as a humane animal experiment,” he said in the statement. “Fear or
panic ensues when the animal is touched or stuck with a needle.”

Balcombe isn’t new to the
longstanding debate over whether it is right to use animals in scientific
research. He has argued against the use of vivisection, the act of operating on
live animals. “Vivisection labs cause animals pain, misery and death, and
should be actively opposed,” though not by violence, as some say,
he wrote
in an April 29, 2004 letter to the Times of London.

But the new findings, according
to the committee, are the first time such misery has been shown to befall
animals during procedures that have until now been seen as relatively benign.

Balcombe’s full findings are
published in the Autumn 2004 issue of the research journal Contemporary Topics
in Laboratory Animal Science
. The findings are based
on an extensive review of the scientific literature by Balcombe, an ethologist,
or scientist who studies animal behavior.

A mouse who is picked up and
briefly held experiences several physiological reactions, according to the
group: As stress-response hormones flood the bloodstream, the mouse exhibits a
racing pulse and a spike in blood pressure. These symptoms can persist for up to
an hour after each event. Immune response is also affected.

“In rats and mice, the growth
of tumors is strongly influenced by how much the animals are handled,” the
group’s statement said.

Supporters of medical research
that uses animals said they don’t have much
faith in Balcombe’s
study. “I would be very skeptical of
anything that comes out of” Balcombe’s
group, since it is also already on record as being anti-vivisection, said
Barbara Davies, communications director for RDS, a British organization of
scientists who support medical research.

Barbara Rich, a spokeswoman for
Americans for Medical Progress, an Alexandria, Virginia-based group, echoed
that. “It
may be that they came to the conclusion before they did the study,” she warned.
Balcombe’s group is closely allied with the radical animal-rights group People
for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, she added.

On
the other hand, Rich acknowledged, the journal that published the paper is
reputable.
She said more scientists will have to assess it, especially as it seems to
contain some strange conclusions. “One person said to me, ‘if handling
animals causes tumors, what does this say about our pets?’”

Balcombe dismissed that
objection. “The
difference between my pet rats and a rat in a laboratory is my pet rats don’t
ever get stuck with needles, have blood drawn or get force-fed a drug,”
he said. Lab animals learn to expect bad things, and their fear of handling
stems from that, he added; this isn’t the
case with pets.

The journal’s editors also
expressed reservations about the paper. In an editorial in the same issue of the
journal, they wrote that the paper is an  “opinion piece. The literature discussed… is selective in
scope and does not include a rigorous review of current methods and studies concerned with detecting
or observing effects of stress in laboratory animals. We caution that it is not correct to conclude that stress is
equivalent to distress or fear.”

Balcombe objected to the
portrayal of his study as selective. He said his review of scientific literature
included all past papers that he could find meeting certain clear criteria. None
that met these conditions was excluded, he asserted: any study was included if
it examined animals’ stress responses to handling and routine experimental
procedures. 

Balcombe also called the
editorial itself highly unusual for a research journal — evidence of how
controversial the subject of animal research is. “One would have to look far
and wide among journals to find an editorial disparaging of the research”
published in the same journal, he observed.

Moreover, Balcombe wrote that
while it can be argued that stress and fear are different, evidence shows that
in this case, stress does correspond to fear. One clue is the fact
that animals try to avoid most of these laboratory procedures, he explained. 

The paper focused on three routine procedures: handling, blood collection and
force-feeding. Independent of the invasive experiments themselves, these daily
routines can cause an animal to experience elevated bloodstream concentrations
of substances known to indicate stress: corticosterone, prolactin, glucose, and
epinephrine, Balcombe wrote. Impaired immune response has
also been recorded in animals after anxiety-producing contact with lab
personnel, according to the study.

Balcombe argued that scared
animals don’t produce sound scientific findings because their fear leads to distorted experimental results.

“Research on tumor
development, immune function, endocrine [hormonal] and cardiovascular disorders,
neoplasms [tumors], developmental defects, and psychological phenomena are
particularly vulnerable to data being contaminated by animals’ stress
effects,” said Balcombe.

 

World Science. December 30, 2004.