Deninvan Low, D., Leong Peng, J. Z., Tay, Y. Q. et al. 2019. Playtime! Exploring habituation techniques in laboratory rats. Laboratory Animal Science Professional 7(4) (December), 42-45.
Our rat training program teaches the standard method of handling and restraining that involves picking the rat up by the base of the tail and placing it on the wire mesh to be restrained. We observed that there was excessive rat shrieking and struggling, coupled with the occasional porphyrin staining, during the hands-on training sessions. As the safety and welfare of the animal and handler is our primary concern, we looked into ways of reducing stress and improving the handling experience. A literature search convinced us that positive social interactions with humans can produce a significant effect in rats, making them less anxious and easier to handle. Cloutier (2014) showed that mimicking the rats’ social playing behavior of “pinning” and “tickling” eliminates the stress response and motivates the rat to remain calm during aversive procedures. As “pinning” can be quite challenging for rats and new handlers that are already expressing anxiety behaviors, we decided to try a more gradual approach to habituate the rats prior to training, to see if this form of rat-human interaction can improve our rats’ behavior during the handling sessions and help new handlers feel more at ease. This article describes our habituation protocol, which has been used for all training rats since the start of 2018. We noticed that the rats are visibly calmer and tamer during the sessions. New rat users in particular were observed to have taken less time, and seemed more confident approaching the tamed rats, which has significantly improved the process of learning how to handle and restrain them. This has greatly enhanced our rat training program for not only the animals and users, but also our trainers.