Caregivers in Research Say Animals Calmed by Conversation

A LAREF Discussion

This past December on AWI’s Laboratory Animal Refinement and Enrichment Forum (LAREF), a question posed by Erik Moreau prompted a discussion on whether talking to animals in a laboratory setting helps reduce their stress. Further, does announcing a certain procedure make it more predictable for the animals and does that communication have a positive impact on data collection? In answer to these questions, Viktor Reinhardt, Marcie Donnelly, Jeannine Rodgers, Christina Winnicker, Evelyn Skoumbourdis, and Michele Cunneen all chimed in to share their experiences. (Comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.)

When I started caring for macaques, I very quickly learned not to barge into the animal rooms (and have them all freak out), but to calmly enter while talking to the animals; once in the room, I continued talking, saying things like “Hi guys, I have to take a few blood samples,” because not all the animals could see me. I never had to deal with a crowd of highly alarmed and fearful macaques. My wife Annie and I used the same simple technique of politeness when we studied feral bison and feral cattle. When the animals could hear us approach, they kept calm and allowed us to come close and do our behavioral recordings among them. (Viktor)

I always talk to all my animals, even rats. I find the monkeys and dogs calm down nicely—well, sometimes dogs stay excited for a bit, but they are excited anyway; as soon as they know you’re there, they all want to see you. (Marcie)

I “hoo” in the hallway outside to let them know I’m there, before I enter. (Jeannine)

I love the idea of the hall-hoo-er! I don’t do that, but I definitely talk to all the species I work with, mice to monkeys. I think its good acclimation for them to get used to the sound of my voice, and I use specific terms for specific events so that they can start to associate them with the procedure I’m going to ask them to do. (Christina)

I have always talked to the animals I work with—heck, I even say hello to the zebrafish and Xenopus [clawed frogs] upon entry to the rooms. I use different intonations and different types of speech for different species, and always announce to the group what I’m there for, whether it be an “I’m really sorry, but we have to take blood samples today” or a “Hey, guess what? It’s goodie time!”

For rabbits, I tend to keep my words soft, but when I say “it’s time to get out the hay,” I will perk up. Also, I tend to sing (albeit somewhat poorly) bunny parody songs I’ve created (e.g., “Tiny Bunnies in the Wine”) because it really does help them get used to sounds from people. With rodents, I’m straight up “Hey guys, how ya doing?” unless someone brings a sick/distressed rodent to my attention. Then, I get out my “poor little fella” calm voice.

With swine, I tend to let them lead me to where we should be for the conversation. I always enter the room with a “hey” or a “Yo, ladies, how are ya?” and after that it really depends upon the general feel of that particular group for that day. We all have bad days sometimes, and I know the animals do, too. So, if they want to be a little “down” that day, I let them, and just do what I can to soothe them with a scratch or a snout rub if they desire.

With sheep, dogs, and cats, I always say “hello” upon entering and then assess their stance and see what’s needed for that particular entry point. Fearful animals and fractious cats require completely different language and intonation than excited, happy-to-see-you critters. With monkeys, it was always a “Hey guys, what’s up?” and we would go from there. I’d have individual conversations with each once I learned their personalities, and even discovered with one group of Mauritian cynomolgus macaques that speaking French was the way to go. By entering with a sing-songy “bonjour, petit garcons” they instantly knew it was me, and I would get some hoots right back. I really miss my monkeys—they were some of my greatest confidants.

One thing I do quite often, that I have not seen many do, is ask permission of the animal to handle them, provide treatment, take a sample, etc. I had one research tech actually ask me last week what I would do if the rat looked at me and said “no.” This is something I’m going to have to deeply consider. (Evelyn)

I have always talked to everyone as I enter, even the mice. Rats, rabbits, primates, pigs, goats, snakes, bats—all definitely like to hear you enter. (With mice, however, I’m never sure they care.) I also think background music helps with that, although some pure behaviorists call that stress.

Many investigators adopt these methods when they see how easily you can interact with the animals that otherwise may try to bite them. I remember a PI [principal investigator] who had worked with hamsters for years at another institution. He came to mine and arrived for orientation and training with a chain mail glove to handle his hamsters. After the regulatory portion of the training we went to the training animals. I took the hamster cage off the shelf and cooed some gibberish to the hamsters. I put the cage on the bench, opened it, and reached in. You could hear him gasp as I came up with the hamster in my unprotected hand.

In the ensuing conversation he said that he had always been bitten and never handled them without the chain mail gloves. I never asked him not to use the glove, but by the end of 20 minutes he was handling and cooing at the hamsters. He carried the glove for about a month, as he still thought it was a trick of my training the animals. When his research animals came in and the projects started, however, the glove was never used.

As a footnote, after about a year, the PI told me his data had never been as tightly grouped as it has been since he came to my institution and stopped using the glove. (Michele)