Standardisation of Environmental Enrichment for Laboratory Mice and Rats: Utilisation, Practicality and Variation in Experimental Results
Rats and mice are the most commonly used species as laboratory animal models of diseases in biomedical research. Environmental factors such as cage size, number of cage mates and cage structure such as environmental enrichment can affect the physiology and behavioural development of laboratory animals and their well-being throughout their lives. Therefore compromising the animals’ well-being due to inadequate environmental conditions would diminish the value of the research models. In order to improve laboratory animals’ well-being and promote the quality of animal based biomedical research, it is fundamentally important that the environment of the animals meets the animals’ species typical behavioural needs. Standardisation of environmental enrichment for laboratory rats and mice therefore should provide possibilities for the animals to engage in at least the essential behavioural needs such as social contact, nest building, exploring and foraging. There is a wide variety of environmental enrichment items commercially available for laboratory mice and rats. However, how these items are used by the animals, their practicality in the laboratory and whether these enrichments might lead to increased variation in experimental results have not been widely assessed. In this study, we implemented two standardised enrichment items (shelters, nesting materials) for rats and mice at different animal units. We instructed the animal care staff in monitoring the use of enrichment items by the animals by means of a daily score sheet system. The animal staff ’s viewpoint on practicality of the standardised enrichment program was assessed with a monthly score sheet survey. Also we assessed whether the enriched environment affected breeding results and contributed to an increase in variation of experimental data from several participating current studies. Our results show that the animals readily used the provided enrichment items. A slight increase in workload for the animal staff was reported. However, the overall judgement was mainly reported as good. Breeding results and variation in experimental data did not reveal differences as compared to data from previous housing and/or non enriched housing conditions. Overall, the results indicate that standard environmental enrichment that is species appropriate may enhance the animal’s well-being without undesirable side effects on the experimental outcome and daily working routine of the animal care staff.