Denommé, M. R., Mason, G. J. 2022. Social buffering as a tool for improving rodent welfare. JAALAS 61(1), 5-14.

The presence of a conspecific can be calming to some species of animal during stress, a phenomenon known as social buffering. For rodents, social buffering can reduce the perception of and reaction to aversive experiences. With a companion, animals may be less frightened in conditioned fear paradigms, experience faster wound healing, show reduced corticosterone responses to novelty, and become more resilient to everyday stressors like cage-cleaning. Social buffering works in diverse ways across species and life stages. For example, social buffering may rely on specific bonds and interactions between individuals, whereas in other cases, the mere presence of conspecific cues may reduce isolation stress. Social buffering has diverse practical applications for enhancing rodent wellbeing (some of which can be immediately applied, while others need further development via welfare-oriented research). Appropriate social housing will generally increase rodents' abilities to cope with challenges, with affiliative cage mates being the most effective buffers. Thus, when rodents are scheduled to experience distressing research procedures, ensuring that their home lives supply high degrees of affiliative, low stress social contact can be an effective refinement. Furthermore, social buffering research illustrates the stress of acute isolation: stressors experienced outside the cage may thus be less impactful if a companion is present. If a companion cannot be provided for subjects exposed to out-of-cage stressors, odors from unstressed animals can help ameliorate stress, as can proxies such as pieces of synthetic fur. Finally, in cases involving conditioned fear (the learned expectation of harm), newly providing social contact during exposure to negative conditioned stimuli (CS) can modify the CS such that for research rodents repeatedly exposed to aversive stimuli, adding conspecific contact can reduce their conditioned fear. Ultimately, these benefits of social buffering should inspire the use of creative techniques to reduce the impact of stressful procedures on laboratory rodents, so enhancing their welfare.

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