Brenneis, C., Westhof, A., Holschbach, J. et al. 2017. Automated tracking of motion and body weight for objective monitoring of rats in colony housing. JAALAS 56(1), 18-31.
Living together in large social communities within an enriched environment stimulates self-motivated activity in rats. We developed a modular housing system in which a single unit can accommodate as many as 48 rats and contains multiple functional areas. This rat colony cage further allowed us to remotely measure body weight and to continuously measure movement, including jumping and stair walking between areas. Compared with pair-housed, age-, strain-, and weight-matched rats in conventional cages, the colony-housed rats exhibited higher body mass indices, had more exploratory behavior, and were more cooperative during handling. Continuous activity tracking revealed that the amount of spontaneous locomotion, such as jumping between levels and running through the staircase, fell after surgery, blood sampling, injections, and behavioral tests to a similar extent regardless of the specific intervention. Data from the automated system allowed us to identify individual rats with significant differences (>2 SD) from other cohoused rats; these rats showed potential health problems, as verified using conventional health scoring. Thus, our rat colony cage permits social interaction and provides a variety of functional areas, thereby perhaps improving animal wellbeing. Furthermore, automated online tracking enabled continuous quantification of spontaneous motion, potentially providing objective measures of animal behavior in various disease models and reducing the need for experimental manipulation. Finally, health monitoring of individual rats was facilitated in an objective manner.