Positive human-animal interactions with rats in the laboratory: increasing implementation of best practices to improve animal welfare
Laboratory animal welfare is critically influenced by personnel working with animals through their decisions about housing, management, and enrichment of these animals. In particular, human-animal interactions can have major impact on both animals and research results. The first step in better understanding their effects is to define terminology, theories, and general applications (Chapter I). Rats are commonly used as model in laboratory research and have been shown to experience stress even during routine handling. A handling technique called heterospecific play or “rat tickling”, which mimics aspects of rat rough-and-tumble play, has the potential to minimize stress, enrich a rat’s life, and improve their welfare. Unfortunately, a survey of 794 laboratory personnel shows rat tickling implementation to be low (Chapter II). Commonly cited barriers to rat tickling includes a lack of time, difficulty with personnel (attitudes and training), and research factors. However, personnel were more likely to tickle their rats if they were more familiar with the practice, thought it was both good and under their control, and felt subject to social pressure to provide it. They also were more likely to tickle their rats if they wanted to provide more enrichment and generally had more positive behaviors towards laboratory animals.
Using those findings, an attempt was made to address those barriers to rat tickling implementation. Chapter III focuses on the barrier of time. This project compared the effectiveness of tickling rats for 15, 30 or 60 s for 1, 3, or 5 days. After the final day of tickling, rats were assessed for their in-cage behavior, human approach behavior, fecal corticosterone, and reaction to an intra-peritoneal injection. Results showed that the most time-efficient and effective rat tickling dosage is 15 s for 3 days before any aversive procedures, based on increased production of 50-kHz ultrasonic vocalizations (a measure of positive affect) and positive anticipatory behavior. Chapter IV focuses on the barrier of inadequate training. This project compared training laboratory personnel with online-only training or online + hands-on training as compared to a waitlist across 2.5 months. Results indicated that both training modalities increased personnels’ reported correct implementation of tickling, self-efficacy, knowledge, and familiarity with rat tickling. Hands-on training also increased personnel’s feelings of control related to rat tickling. Overall, this dissertation identified barriers to rat tickling and then attempted to address the barriers of time and beliefs/training to increase implementation of best practices of rat tickling to improve rat welfare.