Why is animal research necessary?

Research using animals is essential for understanding the biology that underpins health and disease in both humans and other animals. Without such research, we would have few of the modern medicines, antibiotics, vaccines and surgical techniques that we take for granted in both human and veterinary medicine.

Animals are used to investigate fundamental biology, to model disease and to test potential new treatments before they are tested in humans. Animal research is only undertaken where there is no alternative.

What types of animal do you use at Cambridge?

The majority of the animals we use are mice and zebrafish – they make up 97% of all procedures at Cambridge. Where these species are not suitable, we use a small number of other animals, such as xenopus frogs, rats and sheep, as well as non-human primates, namely marmosets and macaques. 

What types of animal research do you carry out?

Some of the work carried out is fundamental research, aimed at understanding how humans and animals develop and how our immune systems and brains work, for example. This knowledge is essential for underpinning our understanding of health and disease for both medical and veterinary purposes. 

Other work is aimed at tackling specific diseases, for example in helping us understand how Parkinson’s disease affects the brain and motor system and how it might be tackled, or in developing new treatments for autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

How many procedures are undertaken on animals at the University of Cambridge each year?

The Home Office collects data on the number of procedures carried out, rather than the number of animals used. The following numbers of procedures based on Home Office Returns were carried out on animals for research at the University of Cambridge:

Species 2016 2015 2014 2013
Mouse 133,456 151,101 139,015 154,537
Rat 3,523 3,567 5,558 4,328
Zebra fish 17,431 24,768 13,815 9,907
Other fish 85 145 100 50
Primate 52 59 42 36
Sheep 148 170 174 155
Guinea pig 56 95 252 31
Other rodents 12 3 13 1
Rabbits 7 16 0 0
Chicken 0 218 564 64
Other birds 5 7 22 0
Xenopus 619 931 1,002 1,001
Total 155,394 181,080 160,557 170,110

A ‘procedure’ is regulated and counts towards our Home Office Returns if it is carried out on a protected animal (such as those species listed above) for a scientific or educational purpose and may cause that animal a level of pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm equivalent to, or higher than, that caused by inserting a hypodermic needle according to good veterinary practice.

Procedures that are regulated include modifying the genes of a protected animal if this has the potential to cause the animal pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm; for example, breeding mice with harmful genetic defects is a regulated procedure if the intention is to keep the animals produced beyond two-thirds of the way through their gestation period. This helps explain why the numbers of mice and zebrafish are so high: each offspring born is counted as a procedure.

Why has the number of procedures in the UK increased year upon year?
Whilst every attempt is made to minimise the number of procedures undertaken in research, there has been an overall increase over the last decade due to the use of genetically-modified (GM) mice. If these breeding figures were to be excluded, the total number of procedures carried out year upon year would decrease slightly.

How do you ensure high standards of animal welfare?
We believe that good science and good animal welfare go hand in hand.  The UK has the most rigorous animal welfare regulations in the world, and we consider adherence to these regulations as a minimum and will continue to aim for the highest possible standards of animal care.

We strongly agree with, and rigidly follow, the guiding principles emphasised by the Home Office on the need to refine protocols, keep the numbers of animals used to a minimum and replace the use of animals with other methods where possible. To this end, we encourage all staff involved in animal research and husbandry to continuously develop and improve on existing welfare standards, offering incentives to those that contribute, and rewarding those that are recognised by the laboratory animal welfare organisations.

Are you looking for alternatives to animal use?
We are committed to refining, reducing and replacing the use of animals in research - known as the 3Rs. Animals are only used where no alternatives are viable. Cambridge scientists are also leading research looking at finding viable alternatives. For example, in 2014, Dr Meritxell Huch from the Gurdon Institute won the UK’s international prize for the scientific and technological advance with the most potential to achieve the 3Rs for work to grow “mini-livers” from adult mouse stem cells.

Do you test cosmetics and household products on animals?
No. It is not permitted anywhere within the UK or the European Union to test cosmetics or household products on animals.