Letter to the editor: usage of rats in the psychology department is ethical

Editor’s note: the article to which this letter responds can be found here: http://trail.pugetsound.edu/2015/03/universitys-research-on-rats-inhumane-usage-of-rat-testing-in-psychology-labs-is-unethical-cruel/

We are writing to respond to the opinion article entitled “University’s research on rats inhumane: usage of rat testing in psychology labs is unethical, cruel” in the March 6, 2015 Trail.

The author inaccurately portrayed the course, publically spreading misinformation about it and its practices.

As two psychology students who took the class, we would like to share our informed insights about the course and its value.  We will also clarify some of the author’s inaccuracies, and provide evidence for the justification of nonhuman animals (NHAs) in educational settings.

The author claims that the course subjects the rats to “exhausting and confusing activities” while providing unhealthy housing conditions.  He argues that the rats are confined to cages and deprived of water “until the student is satisfied with the result of the rat’s effort.”

The author’s statements are grossly inaccurate.  The rats are pair-housed, a technique shown to improve laboratory animals’ physical and psychological well-being.  Students are encouraged to spend time regularly with their rat in a play area and provide their rat with approved treats.  While water is used to motivate behavior, students provide water access for a minimum of 2-4 hours, where published studies providing 30 minutes of water access report no ill effects.  Furthermore, the course will transition to food as a reinforcer starting this fall to reduce the already minimal risk of harm.

Regarding the future of animals that are not adopted, students are not encouraged to take their rat to sanctuaries.  Students are instructed to drop the course if they do not think they will be able to find a suitable home for their rat.  At Puget Sound, a course rat has not been euthanized in almost a decade.  Beginning in the fall, the course will also be reducing the number of rats by half.  This commitment to involving the smallest number of animals and ensuring safe adoption is very rare, and reflects a department that takes animal welfare very seriously.

The author wrote that the “experiments” being run are cruel and inhumane, resulting in permanent negative behavioral changes and premature deaths.  These claims are misinformed for two main reasons.

First, the author’s anecdotal evidence represents only one rat, and therefore cannot generalize to all rats involved in the course.  Additionally, because rats are prey animals, being “skittish” is a readily observed behavior.

Second, as observational sessions are entirely non-invasive, the rats are in situations where danger is non-existent and stress is minimal.  During the course, students observe as their rat learns responses that are not unlike what a rat in the wild might emit (e.g., discriminating between two stimuli).

Further, the rats routinely display a normal range of behaviors during sessions, such as grooming, exploring, and sleeping, all of which have been empirically shown to indicate comfort.  Along with these more structured course sessions, students also conduct an independent project where they train a behavior using positive reinforcement via clicker training, a technique commonly used in dog training.

A substantial section of the previous article dealt with the ethical implications of animal research. The author suggests that this may be an area that receives little consideration in the course.  This could not be further from the truth.  A large portion of the course is devoted to considering the ethical implications of NHA research.  Students are expected to be informed and aware of the potential impact of their research on the rats’ wellbeing.

As the author acknowledged, standards beyond those set by the instructor do exist to govern psychological NHA research.  These guidelines are controlled by the IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee), not the IRB, which sets guidelines for human participants in research.  The IACUC is an interdisciplinary panel comprised of a scientist who conducts animal research, a non-scientist, a veterinarian, and a community member.

The committee has the responsibility of reviewing proposed projects involving NHAs and upholding a high ethical standard that balances concern for animal subjects with the importance of scientific progress.  The standards are not “easy to work around” as the author stated, and proposed projects are frequently rejected if the quality of the study is questionable for any number of reasons.

The previous article articulated that the course provides minimal benefits to students, and does not deserve a place at our university.  We believe that the course affords students a unique and valuable learning environment, and is an integral part of the Psychology curriculum at this university.  The use of animals provides a hands-on learning experience, demonstrating concepts critical to fostering a deeper understanding of the processes underlying behavior.  Further, it is an invaluable experience for students interested in pursuing animal research.  We consider ourselves lucky to attend a university that acknowledges the importance of such a course to our curriculum and supports students’ learning by offering it.

Through NHA research, scientists are able to conduct studies and control variables in a manner impossible with human participants.  Rats are ideal subjects, due to their docile temperament and comparable anatomy/physiology to humans.

While we acknowledge the author’s suggestion to use human participants in the course in lieu of rats, there are a variety of reasons why this is not practical.  For example, with human participants, past experiences lead to individual differences, which can threaten the validity of results.  However, life history can be controlled with rats, meaning more accurate conclusions can be drawn.  Attempting to conduct similar research with human participants is also impractical due to time commitments, financial reasons (e.g., compensation), and inappropriate testing equipment.

A continuous re-examination of the methods and ethical implications of NHA research is a fundamental practice of the scientific process. As new findings create a more comprehensive understanding of the human and nonhuman brain, a greater consideration of appropriate ethical considerations is required.

The knowledge and experience that students gain from taking the course help to inform an understanding of the processes, ethical implications, and merits of conducting research with NHAs.

Such an understanding is imperative to a department that promotes scientific inquiry, and showcases how the course is a vital part of the curriculum at this university.

Questioning the ethics and practices of the course through an argument grounded in emotion and misinformation can have unintended consequences that are dangerous to the students, professors, and animals involved.




Dylan Richmond

Stephen Baum