Animal Aid

Painful Practices

Animal Aid's Mad Science Awards (AAMSAs) are handed out each year for pointless and grotesque scientific research. Award winners receive a diploma featuring the special AAMSA motif of a laboratory beagle stabbed with a scalpel.

The theme for 2005 is pain. Any animal undergoing a 'regulated procedure' (i.e. experiment) may be exposed to 'pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm', based on the Home Office definition of such procedures. Given the theme, sadly, we were spoilt for choice. Our 2005 Award Winners were, therefore, selected on the basis that their experimental 'subjects' experienced an all too typical high level of pain, stress and torment.


Pain is one of the most important and fundamental survival mechanisms provided by nature.

Any animal possessing a nervous system and pain receptors is capable of suffering the effects of pain. However, despite extensive animal experimentation, scientists admit that they are still in the dark about how the process of pain actually works.

Encouragingly, researchers at King's College hospital in London, not wanting to rely on yet more animal testing, have announced that they will (within tight ethical limits) 'shock, heat and poke people in an attempt to understand how the human body produces that hurting feeling' (1).

Cat with electrode in brain

What we do know is that pain in humans is a subjective experience whose assessment and treatment can be complex but, in general, most people can tell a doctor what hurts and how much. Clearly, this is not possible for animals, in whom the measurement of pain must rely on other indicators, such as attempted movement away from a painful stimulus. Two of the most traumatic experimental procedures used in animals relate to investigating pain and its relief: the 'hot plate test' and the formalin test, in which rats and mice are commonly used. In the former, mice are placed on a surface heated to 55°C for up to 30 seconds, in order to test analgesic compounds (painkillers). In the latter, a highly irritating toxic chemical (formalin) is injected under the skin of one of the hind paws. Researchers using such torments then record the amount of time the animals spend licking the injected paw, with and without treatment (2). Even more extreme in terms of animal suffering is the testing of toxic chemicals. These experiments are often designed to produce death as an end point, with mice and rats being the animals most commonly used - but with species such as rabbits, dogs, monkeys and birds being used extensively. Other profoundly painful experiments involve the surgical mutilation of animals, the removal of vital organs, or the insertion of electrodes into their brains.

In addition to the physical traumas of such procedures, animals in laboratories also experience psychological stress. The mere fact of institutionalising any species, be they rats or primates, fundamentally compromises their well-being (3, 4). The animals are unable to move freely, cannot get away from their own wastes, and, at intervals, are taken from their cages for blood tests, surgery, weighing, and other interventions. These procedures are routine for the laboratory staff, but can be terrifying for animals. When animals are stressed, their immune function, hormone levels and susceptibility to cancer and to viral and bacterial infections all change. Stressed animals frequently exhibit illnesses, leaving experimenters to try to sort out which symptoms are caused by the drugs being tested and which are caused by lab conditions or other unknown factors (5).

According to the Home Office report (2003) on the use of animals in scientific procedures, 41% of all the experiments used 'some form of anaesthesia to alleviate the severity of the interventions'. Whilst this admission acknowledges the need for painkilling measures during actual procedures, it does not provide information about the welfare of the animals who are allowed to recover from the anaesthesia.

Click here for the summaries of the 2005 award winners

Report researched and written by André Menache BSc(Hons) BVSc MRCVS FRSH, Scientific Consultant to Animal Aid

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