Find answers to common questions about animal research.
All animal research conducted at UBC falls into one of three categories:
- To advance basic scientific understanding
- To develop solutions to medical problems
- To protect the safety of people, animals, and the environment.
Roughly 60% of the research conducted at UBC aims to advance basic understanding in biology, psychology, physiology and biochemistry. Another ~35% of the research aims to develop solutions for medical problems primarily through the development of treatments of diseases that improve health care outcomes for both humans and animals. Only a small proportion (~3%) of UBC animal research is focussed on assessing safety. For a current description of the types of research conducted at UBC, please see (2017 animal data link).
Animal research at UBC has led to numerous discoveries and advancements, including:
- The development of a novel, non-surgical animal model of concussion that will fast-track drug discovery efforts to treat traumatic brain injury;
- The discovery of new, experimental treatments for diabetes;
- Understanding the environmental factors that result in failed pacific salmon migrations;
- Identification of critical genetic pathways involved in the development of Huntington disease,
There are, in fact, so many scientific breakthroughs involving animal research that they cannot all be described here. Read more about recent discoveries in animal research at UBC here.
It is fair to say that everyone benefits, in some way, from animal research. Scientists are still seeking cures for many diseases, but new vaccines, medications, and treatments for humans, companion animals, domestic animals, fish and wildlife cannot be generated without understanding the basic biology of the disease, which necessitates working in animal models. Nearly every major medical breakthrough in the last 100 years has been achieved through research involving animals. Furthermore, without animal research, millions of dogs, cats, birds, and farm animals would have died from numerous diseases, including distemper, rabies, feline leukemia, and canine parvo virus. Today, those diseases are largely preventable, thanks to vaccines and treatments developed through animal research.
Animal research also plays a critical role in understanding the world around us and the impacts of human activities on wildlife. For example, whale populations are under threat from habitat loss and exploitation, salmon returns are impacted by climate change, and resource development has untold impacts on wildlife. To tackle these issues, scientists work with animals, often using non-invasive research approaches, to gain an understanding of how a changing environment is impacting wildlife and to develop subsequent solutions.
We often hear that there are alternatives to animals in research in the form of cell culture and computer simulations. While this is true for some research questions, it is not true for all aspects of research. Test tube, or in vitro, studies in tissues or cell culture can yield important discoveries on how these components work, but organisms are more than the sum of their parts. Studying cells and tissues cannot reproduce the integrated and complex systems of an intact animal or human, which include circulatory, nervous, and digestive systems. For example, to determine if a new drug is having the desired effect on a disease, it must be tested in an intact animal because the effectiveness of the drug will depend upon how well it absorbed in the gut, the rate of breakdown by the liver, excretion by kidney, and how the drug itself moves from the circulatory system into the organs and tissues. Knowing what a drug does when directly applied to a cell does not account for any of these factors.
Computer simulations are only as good as the information that goes into them. In order for a computer simulation to accurately predict the response of an intact animal, we must have the background data on how the animals respond, which necessitates animals research. As our knowledge of biology, diseases and animal responses grows, so will the value of computer simulations.
There are obvious differences between animals and humans, but there are also remarkable similarities. Mice, a commonly used animal model, shares 99 per cent of our genes. Major biological systems, such as digestive and cardiovascular systems, work in the same way in both animals and humans. For example, much of what we know about our immune system has come from studies in poultry and in mice. In some cases, the differences between humans and animals can also provide insight into understanding important human diseases. The scientific community wants to ensure that animal research delivers the promised benefits and they recognize that there are difficulties involved in extrapolating from animals to humans, in both in vitro and animal studies. So continuous reflection on how research methodology and existing animal models can be improved is an important component of good scientific practise.
Principal Investigators are responsible for overseeing and carrying out research projects listed under their name. Principal investigators must have a Faculty Appointment (e.g. Professor, Associate Professor, Assistant Professor, Clinical Professor, Clinical Associate Professor, Clinical Assistant Professor, Adjunct Professor, Professor Emeritus). Principal investigators require a valid Animal Use Protocol, which guarantees the Animal Care Committee has examined and approved the use of animals. A range of people could be involved in carrying out the day-to-day research including: graduate and undergraduate students, postdoctoral fellows, research associates, laboratory technicians and registered veterinary technicians. All people listed on the certificate or working with animals require a variety of specialized ethics and practical training to ensure they are competent to work with animals.
Decisions about what research is conducted occurs at a variety of levels ranging from individual researchers, independent review by committees in granting agencies, Animal Care Committees review, to decisions about research priorities, budgets and policies made by public officials, scientists, charitable organizations, patient advocates and others.
Researchers who work for academic institutions such at The University of British Columbia are permitted to carry out research as long as it has met the criteria for ethical justification which includes:
- Promise of benefits,
- Research is scientifically valid,
- Harms to animals are minimised, and
- Benefits outweigh harms.
Typically benefits and scientific validity are evaluated by granting agencies or scientist review committees. The Animal Care Committee (members include scientists, veterinarians, animal care technicians, graduate students and members from the community) evaluates proposals to ensure that harm to animals is minimized.
UBC does not permit cosmetic testing.
In Canada, cosmetic testing is regulated by the Food and Drugs Act, the Cosmetic Regulations, and the Consumer Packaging and Labeling Act and Regulations. While it is legal in Canada to use live animals for cosmetic testing, none of these regulatory documents specify requirements for animal testing for cosmetic purposes, and this type of testing is not part of UBC’s research program. Animals at UBC are only used for breeding, teaching or research, as defined by one of the 6 purposes of use outlined by the CCAC.
A variety of species are used for research, teaching or breeding at UBC. The primary species of use are fish, and rodents (mice and rats); others include birds, amphibians (frogs) and lizards. UBC publishes annual reports which includes animal numbers and types and these reports can be found at https://animalresearch.ubc.ca/animal-statistics.html
Animals used in research at UBC may come from a variety of sources. In all cases, the UBC Animal Care Committee requires the source of all animals to be specified on an approved UBC Animal Use Protocol prior to their importation to any of UBC’s research facilities. Animals may be ordered, bred in-house, or imported from the wild. Animals ordered in must come from reputable suppliers, and many of these suppliers are also overseen by the CCAC or equivalent governing bodies in the US or Europe. Animals being studied in the wild or imported from the wild to UBC must have additional permits (Wildlife (Federal), Fisheries and Oceans Canada, etc.).
Pets and stray animals cannot be used for research at UBC, except in the case of observational studies. UBC does not obtain any animals from animal shelters including the BCSPCA or the City Pound; the BC SPCA is not legally permitted to provide animals for research.
Studies of animals in the wild occur wherever those animals are naturally found. Thus, in short, UBC animal researchers can perform their work anywhere in the world. For animals specifically bred for research, research is performed in specialized facilities.
Animal housing facilities are dedicated for this purpose and have strict requirements. The Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC) has numerous guidelines for all facilities where animals are housed, which UBC adheres to. The guidelines are extensive and examples include specifications regarding space requirements, facility security, mechanical and structural engineering (e.g. ventilation and air exchanges, temperature control, lighting, humidity, etc.), cleanliness, and noise. At the individual cage/pen/tank level, these include water quality and temperature for aquatic species, bedding type, animal density, and environmental enrichment. The UBC Animal Care Committee (ACC) is responsible for approving all areas where animals are housed or used. The CCAC requires arm’s length monitoring of these facilities, achieved through facility audit by the post-approval monitoring team, clinical veterinarian visits, routine ACC visits and continuing review visits by the CCAC.
Animals are housed in approved facilities, with trained staff. It is required that all animals are checked at least once daily, along with their housing conditions, food and water supply. Detailed “first aid” plans are developed by veterinarians for any health conditions that arise.
All procedures performed as part of the research are first reviewed and approved by the Animal Care Committee (ACC). As part of this process, a detailed monitoring plan is put in place, including frequent health checks, the use of anaesthesia, pain management, and any other forms of care, as required. Researchers received specialized training for procedures before they perform them. Post-procedure monitoring is performed by researchers and/or facility staff. Oversight of this process is provided by veterinarians, facility managers, the post-approval monitoring team and the ACC.
The experiences of animals will vary depending on the study. Some studies may involve observation of animals in wild settings; others may involve injections, taking small blood samples, or changes to feeding patterns. In some cases, animals may experience similar symptoms to humans as in the case of research on human disease such as cancer or arthritis. Some studies involve general anesthesia and surgery. In all cases, plans are developed before a study can begin to identify how animals are monitored and what actions must be taken if animals experience any discomfort or distress. For animals that will experience pain, pain management plans are designed with UBC veterinarians. Pre-defined experimental endpoints – signs and symptoms of distress (such as weight loss) – are identified to minimize pain or distress caused to animals. Continual efforts are made to find ways to optimize animal models and data collection while minimizing the pain and distress animals might experience.
We also recognize the importance of ensuring good welfare for animals beyond the experimental procedures: in the living conditions and in the way in which people interact with animals. Therefore, training of staff and researchers is obligatory to ensure humane handling techniques and all facilities are obligated to provide living conditions that promote natural behaviours and minimizes stress.
All animals are monitored daily for any changes in their welfare. In addition, special protections are in place to ensure animals are carefully monitored when they are at increased risk of declining health or welfare. The Animal Care Committee sets out rules of how often animals are monitored and what actions must be taken if animals experience any discomfort or distress. Plans are developed in consultation with experienced UBC veterinarians. All studies that involve animals undergoing surgery or other procedures that might cause pain must be accompanied by an approved pain management plan - including the use of anesthetics and analgesics during or after the procedures - just like human patients. Decisions regarding use of analgesia and monitoring follow best practise in veterinary medicine.
Detecting and responding appropriately to prevent animal pain, distress and suffering is an important role of the animal care and research staff, who are specially trained to recognize symptoms of declining health or welfare. (See Animal Care Committee website for course information at http://det.cstudies.ubc.ca/ACC/index.html)
Before any study can begin, all investigative procedures have pre-defined endpoints - signs and symptoms of distress (such as weight loss) - to minimize harms caused to animals. In those few studies where animals may undergo some stress or pain, very specific endpoints are required. The investigation must stop when the endpoint is reached. No animal is left to die as a result of a procedure.
Throughout the course of experiments, various safeguards are in place to ensure that animals are being appropriately monitored and cared for including regular visits by the post-approval monitoring team, facility managers, clinical veterinarians and the ACC.
Depending on the requirements of the research, animals may be humanely euthanized, released (wild studies only), adopted out, or held until the end of their natural lifespan (and then humanely euthanized). Periodically, farm animals used in research may be transferred to local farms after inspection by a UBC veterinarian. As the majority of animals used in research at UBC are fish and rodents, most are humanely euthanized when an investigation is completed. This allows the researchers to obtain as much valuable data as possible, and keep this information for future analyses so a study does not need to be repeated. These data cannot be obtained in other ways (e.g. the analysis of tissues for effects not severe enough to result in clinical symptoms, the study of tissues which cannot be accessed for samples in living humans (e.g. brain)). In some cases, when studies are minimally invasive (e.g. breeding) the Animal Care Committee will permit researchers to use animals in further studies.
Animals can be adopted out on a case by case basis. Decisions regarding adopting animals are made by the ACC and the University Veterinarian. Animals must be healthy, as assessed by a veterinarian, and they must go to a home that can ensure appropriate care.
Humane methods of euthanasia are required by the Canadian Council on Animal Care. Typically, the animal is first sedated or anesthetized and then given a lethal dose of anesthetic. This method ensures the animal feels no pain.
In some cases, if the scientific outcome of the study will be compromised by use of an anesthetic drug, animals are killed quickly without anesthetic. Such procedures must have strong scientific justification to be approved, and they require specific training.
UBC has developed SOPs on euthanasia that can be found here: https://animalcare.ubc.ca/animal-care-committee/policies-and-guidelines