LaFollette, M. R., Cloutier, S., Brady, C. et al. 2019. Laboratory animal welfare and human attitudes: A cross-sectional survey on heterospecific play or “rat tickling”. PLoS ONE 14(8), e0220580.

Laboratory rat welfare is critically influenced by laboratory animal personnel through their implementation, or lack of implementation, of various enrichment techniques. One such promising technique is heterospecific play, or “rat tickling”, which mimics aspects of rat rough-and-tumble play and can contribute to improving welfare, but may be infrequently implemented. The theory of planned behavior can be used to study implementation by measuring intentions and beliefs about rat tickling, including behavioral attitudes (whether it is good or bad), subjective norms (whether there is social/professional pressure to provide it), and control beliefs (whether they feel in control of providing it). Therefore, the objective of this study was to identify current rat tickling prevalence and predictors among laboratory animal personnel in the United States and Canada. Our hypothesis was that rat tickling prevalence would be low and associated with beliefs about the practice, enrichment, and laboratory animals in general. Laboratory animal personnel were recruited from widespread online promotion. A total of 794 personnel (mean = 40±11 years, 80% white, 80% female) completed at least 50% of the mixed methods online survey and met inclusion criteria of currently working with laboratory rats in the USA or Canada. The survey included questions about demographics, enrichment practices and beliefs, attitudes towards rats, general positive behaviors (e.g. talking to laboratory animals), and both practices and beliefs about rat tickling. Qualitative data were coded using thematic analysis. Quantitative data were analyzed using general linear models. Laboratory personnel reported low levels of rat tickling implementation, with 89% of participants reporting using it never or rarely. Laboratory personnel reported 2 key benefits (handling: 61%, welfare: 55%) and 3 key barriers (time: 59%, personnel: 22%, and research: 22%) to rat tickling using qualitative analysis. Current and planned rat tickling were positively associated with more positive beliefs (social/professional pressure p<0.0001, control of providing tickling p<0.0001) and familiarity with tickling (p<0.0001). Current rat tickling was also positively associated with more positive general behaviors towards laboratory animals, such as naming animals (p<0.0001). Future rat tickling was positively associated with more positive attitudes about it (p<0.0001) and a desire to implement more enrichment (p<0.01). Our findings show that even though rat tickling implementation is currently low, it is positively associated with personnel beliefs, familiarity, general attitudes, and a desire for more enrichment. That is, laboratory animal personnel were more likely to provide rat tickling if they were more familiar with it, thought providing it was both good and under their control, and felt subject to social/professional pressure, as well as if they wanted to provide more enrichment and generally had more positive behaviors towards laboratory animals. There is potential to increase rat tickling by increasing personnel familiarity with the procedure through training, decreasing the time required, and changing personnel beliefs–thereby improving rat welfare.

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