Your questions answered
Frequently asked questions about the use of animals in research
We know that animal research raises questions for a lot of people. We have tried to answer the questions we are most commonly asked below. If you have another question you would like us to answer, please email email@example.com.
Animals are needed in research because of the complexity of how the body works. Where required we use animals in a wide variety of medical and veterinary research. In addition, we undertake fundamental biological research to increase our understanding of the normal functioning of the body.
Animal research conducted at the University of Edinburgh has progressed the understanding and treatment of disorders such as stroke, Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and cancer. It has contributed to measures for preventing and treating diseases of third world countries such as malaria and other infectious diseases and has also helped improve the health and welfare of domestic and farm animals.
Only a small proportion of our research involves animals. Within research projects, animals are used as part of wide range of scientific techniques. The law requires that animals are only used when alternatives - such as cell cultures or computer modelling – are not available. We are committed to implementing the 3Rs - refinement, replacement and reduction - in all of our research involving animals. Some of our research is also focused on finding alternatives.
Animal research has played an essential role in the majority of medical breakthroughs over the past decade. Animals are used to study complex diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s.
Animals were fundamental to the University’s discovery of ovarian cryopreservation, which gives women who have had cancer the opportunity to have children after treatment. This breakthrough involves the removal and cryopreservation of ovarian tissue from women who have cancer. After the cancer treatment has finished, the ovarian tissue can be re-implanted and fertility restored.
Our animal research news pages contain more examples of medical advancements and new treatments that we have achieved through the use of animal research.
We mainly use mice, rats and zebrafish. We also use other fish species (salmon and rainbow trout), poultry, and a small number of farm animals (pigs, sheep and cattle). As part of our annual statistics report, we publish information on the number of procedures carried out and the types of animals used.
Yes, as well as allowing the advancement of medical knowledge and the development of treatments for people, research carried out using animals has been instrumental in the production of medications and procedures which are used in treatments to improve the welfare of animals.
The procedures that research animals undergo depend on the research programme. The majority of animals recorded in the annual returns are used for breeding of genetically modified animals (predominantly rodents and fish). Breeding genetically modified animals is a regulated procedure under the Animal (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. Regulated procedures are defined as any experimental or other scientific procedure, which may cause the animal pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm equivalent to, or higher than, that caused by inserting an injection needle according to good veterinary practice. Other examples of regulated procedures include the collection of blood samples, the administration of treatments, and undergoing non-invasive imaging such as CT (computed tomography) and MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), which are analogous to those used in humans. A minority of the animals used undergo surgery. Anaesthesia and analgesia (pain killers) must be used if the procedures are known or likely to be painful. A team of veterinarians ensures that the protocols used are the most refined.
The law requires that any harm experienced by animals, caused by regulated procedures, be minimised at all times. A harm-benefit analysis approach is used during the licensing process in assessing whether the harm to the animal is justified by the potential scientific outcome. A severity system is in place to categorise regulated procedures and to control the impact on the animal. In 2022 84 per cent of all regulated procedures carried out at the University were classed as sub-threshold or mild.
There are strict laws regulating the supply of animals in research. Rodents and zebrafish must be bred for the specific purpose of being used in research and bought from licensed suppliers. Farm animals may be purchased from commercial farms. We breed most of the animals used at the University within our own facilities.
Our animals are cared for by experienced animal technicians with veterinary teams that offer specialist care and advice.
At the end of scientific studies the great majority of animals are humanely killed. In many cases the animal's body tissues or other samples are required for analysis to complete the study. The methods used for humane killing are strictly regulated by law. These methods vary according to the species, size and age of the animal. Researchers and technical staff are trained in carrying out these procedures and cannot perform them unsupervised until they have undergone a formal assessment to ensure they are fully competent. Researchers are then reassessed every three years. All individuals working with animals are trained to handle them in ways that do not cause them discomfort or distress.
Animals that undergo minor experimental procedures in the wild (e.g. blood sampling) are released back into their environment after completion of the study.
Where possible, we consider alternatives to killing, such as re-homing. Re-homing of animals used in scientific research is also strictly disciplined by the law.
No, we do not use non-human primates at the University of Edinburgh.
We have not worked with any clinical cases involving dogs since 2019 which is why there are no dogs detailed in our annual returns. We have previously used a small number of client-owned pet dogs in studies to improve canine health. These dogs live at home with their owners throughout the study period and continue to live normal lives when the research ends.
No, it has been illegal to use animals to test cosmetic products under UK law since 1998 and throughout the Europe Union since 2013.
Yes. Stress is a major cause of mental and physical ill health. It affects the whole body and the impact of stress cannot be recreated in cell cultures. We use a small number of rats in our research to better understand the effects of stress, specifically during pregnancy. Click the link below to find out more about our research on stress.
The majority of our research falls within two areas; basic research aims to understand basic processes in the body, such as how cells and genes function, while translational research aims to identify new treatments for a range of human and animal diseases.
If a potential new drug is identified the law then requires that it must go through a variety rigorous tests, first on animals and then using human volunteers. These animal studies are carried out by commercial companies. This is essential to test the safety of new drugs, to make sure they will not be toxic to humans, as well as to test the effectiveness of the new drugs in treating the target disease.
The University is a signatory of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research in the UK which was launched in 2014. As part of this we are committed to enhancing communications with the public about our use of animals in scientific research.
Our commitments are as follows:
- We will be clear about when, how and why we use animals in research
- We will enhance our communications with the media and the public about our research using animals
- We will be proactive in providing opportunities for the public to find out about research using animals
- We will report on progress annually and share our experiences
As part of the Concordat on Openness, the University was awarded the Leader in Openness Award in December 2021 for our efforts to improve transparency around the use of animals in scientific research.