In the context of animal research, refinement refers to caring for and experimenting on animals in the best way possible. The aim is to reduce the pain and harm experienced by the animal prior to, during and after a study, hence improving the animal’s welfare and quality of life.
Culture of care improves animal welfare
The institutes participating in animal research activities have committed to a “culture of care” in their operations. The purpose of the culture of care (see ec.europa.eu... and norecopa.no...) is to improve animal welfare and the quality of research. It refers to the best possible care, handling, and experiments on animals, as well as looking after the staff and operational transparency. These measures will improve animal welfare, enhance the quality of scientific research, and achieve reproducible testing results. The culture of care is more than rules and regulations – it commits operators and employees to the best practices. It is refinement to the greatest extent.
Refinement and the culture of care concern an animal’s whole life cycle and environment. Improvements to the animal’s environment must consider its species-typical behaviour and natural environment. Handling of animals during studies, as well as their conditions and care, affect their physiology during the study and hence the research results. When animals are adapted to handling and procedures gradually, they also become conditioned to their handler, which reduces the stress experienced by the animal and makes handling easier. Promoting species-typical behaviour and conditioning animals to experiments are refinement as intended by the 3Rs.
Refinement improves quality of experimental results
A good example of the refining of animal handling is avoiding the traditional lifting of mice by their tail. Grabbing the animal’s tail causes it to experience discomfort and fear. Mice will adapt to handling more readily when they are lifted with a tube or by using the entire hand, or if they are allowed to climb onto the hand themselves. Mice lifted by their tail have exhibited less activity and less drive to explore new test areas and objects in behavioural tests, for example. This could cause bias in research results.
If an animal experiences pain or prolonged discomfort, these will affect the research results. Pain must be relieved by all means available, and the harm experienced by the animal must be minimised. Sufficient pain relief must always be used when the study design allows for it. Pain must be relieved further by other means, such as providing a peaceful environment, a comfortable ambient temperature and other supporting care. Criteria already exist for assessing harm and pain based on observations of an animal’s appearance and behaviour (e.g., www.nc3rs.org.uk...), including criteria-based measures, such as euthanizing the animal.
Refinement and the culture of care are an ongoing activity in animal care and studies. Improvements must also be considered during a study. The current methods are improved continuously, and new methods are implemented.