Hohlbaum, K., Merle, R., Frahm, S. et al. 2022. Effects of separated pair housing of female C57BL/6JRj mice on well-being. Scientific Reports 12(1), 8819.

In laboratory animal facilities, it is a common code of practice to house female mice in groups. However, some experimental conditions require to house them individually, even though social isolation may impair their well-being. Therefore, we introduced a separated pair housing system and investigated whether it can refine single housing of adult female C57BL/6JRj mice. Individually ventilated cages (IVC) were divided by perforated transparent walls to separate two mice within a cage. The cage divider allowed visual, acoustic, and olfactory contact between the mice but prevented interindividual body-contact or food sharing. Short- and long-term effects of the separated pair housing system on the well-being of the mice were compared with single and group housing using a range of behavioral and physiological parameters: Nest building behavior was assessed based on the complexity of nests, the burrowing performance was measured by the amount of food pellets removed from a bottle, and trait anxiety-related behavior was tested in the free exploratory paradigm. For the evaluation of the ease of handling, interaction with the experimenter's hand was monitored. Social interaction with unknown conspecifics and locomotor activity were investigated in a test arena. Moreover, body weight and stress hormone (metabolites) were measured in feces and hair. After the mice spent a day under the respective housing conditions, concentrations of fecal corticosterone metabolites were higher in separated pair-housed mice, and they built nests of a higher complexity when compared to single-housed mice. The latter effect was still observable eight weeks later. In week 8, separated pair-housed mice showed less locomotor activity in the social interaction arena compared to mice from the other housing systems, i.e., single and group housing. Regardless of the time of testing, pair housing improved the burrowing performance. Separated pair-housed mice were more difficult to catch than group-housed mice. Hair corticosterone, progesterone, and dehydroepiandrosterone concentrations changed with increasing age independently of the housing system. There were no effects of the housing systems on trait anxiety-related behavior in the free exploratory paradigm, voluntary interaction with the experimenter’s hand, and body weight. Overall, the transfer to the separated pair housing system caused short-term stress responses in female C57BL/6JRj mice. Long-term effects of separated pair housing were ambiguous. On one hand, separated pair housing increased nesting and burrowing behavior and may therefore be beneficial compared to single housing. But on the other hand, locomotor activity decreased. The study underlined that the effects of the housing conditions on physiological and behavioral parameters should be considered when analyzing and reporting animal experiments.

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