Procedures carried out on animals in Northern Ireland, 2021

Posted: by Hannah Hobson on 31/10/22

More on these Topics:

Procedures carried out on animals in Northern Ireland, 2021

Latest figures show an increase in animals used in research in Northern Ireland in 2021

  • Number of procedures on animals in 2021 has increased by 28.7% to 29,221

  • Mice, fish, rats, and birds account for over 95% of all procedures

  • Cats and dogs account for 0.2% of all procedures

  • Northern Ireland represents 0.95% of UK animal research

The Department of Health in Northern Ireland has released its annual statistics on the number of animals used in scientific, medical and veterinary research in 2021. The figures show that 29,221 procedures were carried out in Northern Ireland in 2021, 28.7% more than in 2020. 

Over 95% of the procedures were carried out in mice, fish, rats, and birds, whereas cats and dogs accounted for 0.2% of all procedures in 2021. 

While mice are the most common species used (84% of the total), pigs, sheep, and cattle together account for 4.7% of research, reflecting the large amount of agricultural research conducted in Northern Ireland.

In 2021, England, Scotland and Wales carried out 3,056,243 procedures on animals, of which 96% were on mice, fish, rats, and birds. The 29,221 procedures carried out in Northern Ireland represent approximately 0.95% of animal research across the UK.

What is a procedure? 

Any procedure applied to a protected animal for an experimental or other scientific purpose, or for an educational purpose, that may have the effect of causing an animal pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm equivalent to, or higher than, that caused by the introduction of a needle in accordance with good veterinary practice. 

How many animals are used? 

The number of procedures carried out in a year does not equal the number of animals that have been used in procedures that year. This is because some animals may be used more than once i.e. ‘re-used’, in certain circumstances. These instances are counted as separate, additional, procedures. As a result, the number of procedures is usually slightly higher than the number of animals used. 28,953 animals were used for the first time in 2021.

Specially protected species

Specially protected species refers to cats, dogs, horses, and non-human primates - they are subject to additional protection under Section 5C of the Animal (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. This means these species can only be used when no other species is suitable. These species were used in 0.2% of all procedures. No primates have been used in experiments in Northern Ireland in over a decade.

Number of Animal Procedures in Northern Ireland in 2021

Species Experimental Procedures % Procedures for the Creation & Breeding of Genetically Altered Animals % Total Procedures (2021) % % change from 2020
Mice 17,594 79.45% 6,973 98.58% 24,567 84.07% 35.77%
Rats 606 2.74% 104 1.42% 710 2.43% 80.66%
Cats 0 0.00% 0 0.00% 0 0.00%
Dogs 61 0.28% 0 0.00% 61 0.21% -53.44%
Domestic fowl 1,714 7.74% 0 0.00% 1,714 5.87% 74.72%
Pig 206 0.93% 0 0.00% 206 0.70% -57.17%
Sheep 651 2.94% 0 0.00% 651 2.23% -0.31%
Cattle 525 2.37% 0 0.00% 525 1.80% 11.94%
Fish 673 3.04% 0 0.00% 673 2.30% -50.59%
Other animals 114 0.51% 0 0.00% 114 0.39% 32.56%
Total 22,144 75.8% 7,077 24.2% 29,221 100% 28.7%

Purpose of procedure

Experimental procedures increased by 40.8% compared to the previous year, while procedures related to the creation and breeding of genetically altered animals increased by 1.4%. 

Procedures for creation and breeding involve the breeding of animals whose genes have mutated or have been modified. These animals are used to produce genetically altered offspring for use in experimental procedures but are not themselves used in experimental procedures.

24% (7,077) of all procedures were for the creation or breeding of genetically altered (GA) animals. Of these 7,077 procedures: 

  • 97% were for the purpose of maintenance of established lines of genetically altered animals

  • 3% were for the creation of new lines of genetically altered animals

Experimental procedures involve using animals in scientific studies for purposes such as basic research and the development of treatments, safety testing of pharmaceuticals and other substances, education, specific surgical training and education, environmental research and species protection.

76% (22,144) of all procedures were for experimental purposes. This includes basic research, which expands our knowledge of living organisms and the environment; applied research, which addresses the prevention of disease and development of treatments; and regulatory research, which includes studies aimed at ensuring product safety and the effectiveness of pharmaceuticals. Of these 22,144 procedures: 

  • 36% were for applied research 

  • 30% were for basic research

  • 6% were for the protection of the natural environment

  • 2% were for regulatory research 

The use of animals to test tobacco products was banned in the UK in 1997 and it has been illegal to use animals to test cosmetic products in this country since 1998. A policy ban on household product testing using animals was introduced in 2010. Since 2013, it has been illegal to sell or import cosmetics anywhere in the EU where the finished product or its ingredients have been tested on animals.  

Severity of Animal Procedures in Northern Ireland in 2021

Severity Experimental Procedures % Procedures for the Creation & Breeding of Genetically Altered Animals % Total Procedures (2021) % Change from 2019
Sub threshold 2,241 10.12% 5,459 74.58% 7,700 26.13%
Non-recovery 203 0.92% 0 0.00% 203 0.69%
Mild 5,960 26.91% 1,524 20.82% 7,484 25.40%
Moderate 12,866 58.10% 254 3.47% 13,120 44.53%
Severe 874 3.95% 83 1.13% 957 3.25%
Total 22,144   7,320   29,464    

Severity assessments measure the harm experienced by an animal during a procedure. A procedure can be as mild as an injection, or as severe as an organ transplant. Severity assessments reflect the peak severity of the entire procedure and are classified into five different categories:  

Sub-threshold: When a procedure did not cause suffering above the threshold for regulation, i.e. it was less than the level of pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm that is caused by inserting a hypodermic needle according to good veterinary practice. 

Non-recovery: When the entire procedure takes place under general anaesthetic and the animal is humanely killed before waking up. 

Mild: Any pain or suffering experienced was only slight or transitory and minor so that the animal returns to its normal state within a short period of time. For example, the equivalent of an injection or having a blood sample taken. 

Moderate: The procedure caused a significant and easily detectable disturbance to an animal’s normal state, but this was not life-threatening. For example, surgery carried out under general anaesthesia followed by painkillers during recovery. 

Severe: The procedure caused a major departure from the animal’s usual state of health and well-being. This would usually include long-term disease processes where assistance with normal activities such as feeding and drinking were required, or where significant deficits in behaviours/activities persist. Animals found dead are commonly classified as severe as pre-mortality suffering often cannot be assessed. Most severe procedures arise in regulatory testing such as evaluation of toxicity of drugs. 

Sub-threshold and mild procedures account for 52% of all procedures in 2021.  

Why has the total number of procedures increased this year?

The total number of animals used in research is affected by many factors. The overall funding for life sciences in the United Kingdom, as well as the relative funding in other countries, will change the amount of science done – a proportion of which will involve animals.

An increase in animal procedures in 2021 compared to 2020 was not unexpected. In 2020, animal procedures decreased by 19% compared to 2019, the lowest since 2016. This was due to various COVID-19 national lockdowns imposing strict limits on daily life and causing many institutions to delay or stop research studies using animals during 2020. In 2021 research establishments have been able to function without as many restrictions. There has also been a rise in the number of experimental procedures carried out in 2021 compared to the number of procedures involving the creation and breeding of genetically altered animals, particularly in the area of applied research, which may reflect a change in research priorities following the COVID-19 pandemic. If we compare the 2021 figures against the 2019 figures, the total number of procedures has decreased by 3.7%.

Animals are used alongside other techniques such as cell cultures, human studies and computational models. These methods are used – often in tandem – to answer the key biological questions necessary to understand and treat disease. 

Animal research is strictly regulated in the UK. Every procedure, from a simple blood test to major surgery, requires individual, establishment and project licences, as well as approval from an Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Body. Before an animal is used, researchers must show that the knowledge could not be acquired using non-animal methods.  

More details on Northern Irish statistics can be found here:

Last edited: 1 November 2022 11:18

Back to News

Get the latest articles and news from Understanding Animal Research in your email inbox every month.
For more information, please see our privacy policy.