Human Beliefs and Refinements for Animal Welfare: A Case Study on Rat Tickling in the Laboratory

by Megan LaFollette and Dr. Brianna Gaskill 

New research out of Purdue University shows that the beliefs of laboratory animal personnel are highly associated with their implementation of welfare-enhancing enrichment techniques. This study focused on the promising welfare-enhancing technique of rat tickling, which mimics aspects of rat rough-and-tumble play. It also relates to a common, well-supported theory in human behavior change research called the “theory of planned behavior.” The theory posits that “intentions to perform behaviors of different kinds can be predicted with high accuracy from attitudes toward the behavior, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control” (Azjen, 1991). Looking at the study through the lens of this theory helps explain the frequency with which this behavior is performed and how it might be increased.

In this study, which was funded by an AWI Refinement Grant, 794 individuals from the United States and Canada who work with animals in research completed a single time-point mixed methods online survey. Its results indicated that, as of April 2018, few of these individuals used rat tickling, with 89 percent reporting that they use it never or rarely. Furthermore, although most personnel believed that rat tickling was beneficial for welfare, most also believed that the time required to implement it was a major barrier. 

In turn, use of rat tickling with laboratory rats was positively associated with favorable general beliefs about the technique (e.g., tickling will improve rat welfare and my own mood). Specifically, personnel were more likely to tickle rats if they thought the technique was good (positive attitude), felt they could practically do the technique in the laboratory (perceived behavioral control), and felt subject to professional pressure to provide the technique (subjective norm). They were also more likely to tickle rats if they were more familiar with the technique, generally displayed more positive behaviors towards laboratory animals (e.g., petting and talking to the animals), and generally wanted to provide more enrichment for their laboratory animals.

In conclusion, this research demonstrates the importance of laboratory animal personnel in real-life application of refinements and enrichments for laboratory animals. It shows that even techniques that are well-supported by the scientific literature may not be commonly used. In large part, these techniques may not be used because of practical constraints such as a lack of time and lack of positive personnel beliefs about the technique. This research may indicate that changing these beliefs and decreasing barriers to practical implementation may be necessary to garner widespread implementation of refinements to laboratory animal welfare. 
 

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