The term 'welfare assessment' refers to monitoring animals for signs of pain, suffering and distress associated with procedures or their effects, as well as to the day-to-day assessment of all animals to detect health or welfare issues so they can be dealt with. It is also good practice to define and include indicators of positive wellbeing, such as appropriate levels of grooming and social interaction, when devising protocols for monitoring animals.
Effective welfare assessment is especially important with respect to severe suffering, as it can help to prevent pain and/or distress reaching 'severe' levels and better inform refinement approaches and the implementation of humane endpoints.
In the UK, project licence holders and personal licensees have a legal responsibility to ensure that animal suffering is minimised during all regulated procedures. This includes establishing a specific welfare assessment protocol tailored to the species and procedure, at the project planning stage, as well as being ultimately responsible for the monitoring and care of animals used in procedures. It is critical that there is a good understanding of the normal physiology and behaviour of the species (and strain, if appropriate) and of how deviations from normality can affect welfare and provide an indicator that there could be a problem.
You may be able to use some of the parameters you are monitoring for scientific purposes as part of the welfare assessment, e.g. if animals have been implanted with heart rate or blood pressure telemetry devices as part of the procedure. Whichever behavioural or physiological indicators you choose to assess welfare and implement humane endpoints, it is good practice to consider them with care and think about how they will be used in practice, rather than cutting and pasting from other licences or standard protocols. Animal technologists and veterinarians can provide expert advice to help define welfare assessment protocols and to assist in their application, and you can ask your AWERB, AWB or ACUC for discussion and guidance. It is helpful to include the final welfare assessment protocol in publications, e.g. as supplementary online material.
Animal technologists and vets
Animal technologists and vets play an essential role in the day to day care and welfare monitoring of animals. Named persons also have legal responsibilities with respect to ensuring that animals are effectively monitored, and suffering dealt with. Good communications and relationships with researchers, and support from management and the AWERB, will help to ensure that animal technologists and vets have constructive input into welfare assessment protocols - and they should also be involved in 'actual severity' assessments and wider retrospective reviews of severity.
The AWERB should insist that all project applications are accompanied by a welfare assessment protocol that has been tailored for the species and strain. This should demonstrate understanding of the welfare impact of the animals' lifetime experiences, including the procedure and its effects. The protocols do not have to be included in the licence application, but it is important for the AWERB to see these and understand how they will be used day to day. Ideally, the researcher would be able to discuss how welfare will be assessed, and humane endpoints implemented, with the AWERB in person.
If an applicant cannot adequately set out the welfare issues, or if the AWERB has concerns about the potential for severe suffering, a welfare pilot study may be requested (see section 2.3.4 of the JWGR report (PDF 818KB)). This is a useful way of establishing whether the proposed protocol will cause severe suffering, and defining welfare assessment and potential refinements.
Two useful guidance documents for AWERB and AWB members are the RSPCA Lay Members' Handbook (PDF 6,742KB) and the RSPCA/LASA Guiding Principles on good practice for AWERBs (PDF 1.41MB). Both give useful advice on how AWERB or AWB members can promote the implementation and dissemination of refinements. Although the Guiding Principles are written for UK AWERBs, many of them are also useful for AWBs and ethics or animals care and use committees operating worldwide. The Lay Members' Handbook is specifically intended for an international audience.
Resources to assist welfare assessment
Guidance on identifying suitable behavioural and physiological indicators of discomfort, pain or distress, defining appropriate recording systems and setting out effective monitoring protocols can be found in:
- JWGR (Joint Working Group on Refinement; 2011) A guide to defining and implementing protocols for the welfare assessment of laboratory animals (PDF 818KB). Laboratory Animals 45: 1-13
- European Commission (2012) Working document on a severity assessment framewor (PDF 720KB)
- European Commission (2013) Examples to illustrate the process of severity classification, day-to-day assessment and actual severity assessmen (PDF 840KB)
- ILAR (2008) Recognition and Alleviation of Distress in Laboratory Animals. Washington, DC: National Academies Press
- ILAR (2009) Recognition and Alleviation of Pain in Laboratory Animals. Washington, DC: National Academies Press
- NC3Rs welfare assessment resource www.nc3rs.org.uk/welfare-assessment
- National Health and Medical Research Council (2008) Guidelines to Promote the Wellbeing of Animals Used for Scientific Purposes: The Assessment and Alleviation of Pain and Distress in Research Animal (PDF 1.32MB). Canberra: Australian Government
- Wells DJ et al. (2006) Assessing the Welfare of Genetically Altered Mice (PDF 48KB)
- Assessing the Health and Welfare of Laboratory Animals (AHWLA) www.ahwla.org.uk/index.html