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'Without anaesthetic' - reading animal statistics

25 November 2015

Posted by: Tom Holder

Category: Staff blog

Every year the Home Office publishes annual statistics on how many animals are used in scientific research in the UK, together with detailed information on the types of animals used and the areas of research they are used in.

Many changes were made between the 2013 and 2014 annual statistics releases in the detail of this reporting. In 2014, animals were counted upon the completion of studies, not at the start of them and assessments of actual severity were made after the research had taken place, rather than previously when the severity was estimated before the research started (these estimates are still used for licence applications, but not reported in the statistics).

This latter change has made a significant difference to the classification of ‘severity’, previously there was a tendency to overestimate the severity of an experiment. Additionally, greater detail is now included about the genetically altered animals used.

One of the changes was the removal of the pre-2014-Table-5 statistics on the use of anaesthesia. No longer do the statistics provide information on the types of anaesthesia given to the animals. The table below shows the 2013 statistics, showing that 71% of studies involved no anaesthesia.

So has the Government stopped recording a way of measuring animal suffering?
In short, no. The Government has stopped reporting on a fairly meaningless, and badly misunderstood statistic. 

Note the following two examples from animal rights groups:

A tweet from the BUAV

 

From the AWI website: The 61% moderate severity licences relates to estimated severity. In 2014, when actual severity was measured, over 75% were mild or subthreshold.

In both examples the statements give the misleading impression that the lack of anaesthetic is something to be concerned about.  

The guidance provided by the Government for the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, 1986, is very clear on the use of anaesthetics:

All procedures must be carried out under general or local anaesthesia unless administering the anaesthetic would cause more suffering for the animal than the procedure itself or would be incompatible with the purposes of the procedures.

The 2014 statistics showed that over 75% of studies were either sub-threshold or mild studies, examples might include breeding of a genetically altered animal, short term isolation or taking a blood sample.

For such studies, the introduction of an anaesthetic is likely to either be detrimental to the procedure (anaesthetised animals are not good at finding their way through a maze, for instance), or likely to cause more stress to the animal than the procedure itself.

Ultimately, knowing the proportion of procedures carried out with or without anaesthetic tells us little about pain or distress, but had been misused by various animal rights groups to exaggerate concerns about animal suffering. Instead, in 2014, the Government began reporting on actual severity  – which is a far more useful piece of information – allowing the Government and animal welfare groups to focus on ways to reduce, for instance, the number of severe procedures carried out - currently 5% of the total.