Training Primates to Cooperate During Blood Collection

For macaques and other primates in research laboratories, blood draws can be extremely stressful events. The anxiety and fear, however, may result not so much from any “phobia” involving the needle, but from the restraint often employed to enable the technician to perform the procedure. Depending on the nature of the study, the distress these animals experience could actually affect test results.

Recently, participants in AWI’s Laboratory Animal Refinement & Enrichment Forum (LAREF) discussed how laboratory personnel can reduce stress during blood draws by training primates to cooperate—eliminating the need for restraint. Through a series of patient steps coupled with rewards, many primates can be induced to willingly present a leg or other body part to the handler to allow for blood draws.

Some animals—even without training—have been known to figure out on their own that going along with the procedure gets the unpleasantness over faster and with less fuss. With most others, positive reinforcement training (PRT) can lead the animal toward cooperation via incremental steps. Each step is patiently repeated until the animal is calm, cooperative, and knows what is being expected of her before proceeding to the next step, leading finally to the animal voluntarily getting in position for the draw (like a human in a doctor’s office rolling up her sleeve and presenting an arm).

In these cases, the PRT itself can even be a reward—and not just for the monkeys. One forum participant noted how a certain macaque would come attentively to the front of the cage when the caretaker approached, ready to interact and eager to get raisins after accomplishing the first training step of the day. The caretaker added that, “The training sessions are a kind of environmental enrichment not only for the trainee but for me; they break the monotony of my routine husbandry work and challenge me to make a creative, and at the same time, useful contribution to scientific methodology.”

If the PRT is successful, the benefits can be dramatic. According to one story in a lab where heel sticks and blood draws were done on a daily basis, the monkeys were trained so well that they presented their legs through the bars of their cages as soon as they saw a syringe.

An animal who is taught to associate cooperation and a quick procedure with obtaining a treat (and not being manhandled) is thus more “in control” of his situation and more likely to remain calm—reducing the threat that stress will become an unwanted variable and making the technician’s job less stressful as well.

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