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Why focus on severe suffering?: Scientists

There are legal, ethical and scientific reasons to minimise suffering within research projects involving animal use.  While this applies to all levels of suffering (classified as ‘mild’, ‘moderate’ or ‘severe’ in the European Union), severe suffering is of the greatest concern to many people – including the investigator, as nobody wants to cause severe pain or distress. Avoiding severe suffering will significantly reduce harms to animals, which fulfils legal requirements, reduces ethical concerns and improves the harm-benefit balance. It is also increasingly acknowledged that better animal welfare is integral to better quality science;  for example, untreated pain or distress that is not an essential component of the model can lead to physiological alterations that increase variability and may confound the data.


What makes a procedure ‘severe’?

Close up of laboratory rat © RSPCA

There are three main causes of severe suffering:

  • some procedures or ‘models’ are more likely to be severe
  • a combination of milder factors can increase the level of suffering to severe – often called ‘cumulative severity
  • mortality may involve severe suffering, including both unexpected mortality and ‘death as an endpoint’ if this is required by a regulatory body or journal editor


Each of these factors can often be overcome with creative thinking, good communication and appropriate investment of time and resources. The RSPCA has developed a ‘Road Map’ towards ending severe suffering and more information can be found there.


You can also see some examples of procedures that have the potential to cause severe suffering.

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