Makowska, I. J., Weary, D. M. 2016. The importance of burrowing, climbing and standing upright for laboratory rats. Royal Society Open Science 3, 160136.
Standard laboratory cages prevent rats (Rattus norvegicus) from performing many behaviours that they perform in the wild, but little is known about how this may affect their welfare. The aims of this study were (i) to record the propensity to burrow, climb and stand upright in 3-, 8- and 13-month old laboratory rats housed in semi-naturalistic environments and (ii) to compare the frequency of lateral stretching in semi-naturalistic versus standard-housed rats; we predicted standard-housed rats would perform more lateral stretches to compensate for the inability to stretch upright. Rats' propensity to burrow remained constant as they aged (approx. 30 bouts per day totalling 20–30 min), suggesting burrowing is important to rats. Climbing decreased from 76 to 7 bouts per day at 3 versus 13 months, probably because of declining physical ability. Upright standing decreased from 178 to 73 bouts per day, but continued to be frequently expressed even in older rats. Standard-housed rats stretched much more frequently than semi-naturalistic-housed rats (53 versus 6 bouts per day at 13 months), perhaps in compensation for inability to stretch upright and to relieve stiffness caused by low mobility associated with standard housing. These findings suggest that standard laboratory cages interfere with important natural behaviours, which is likely to compromise rat welfare.