Do your rats giggle when they get tickled?

…and why this is super important if you do animal-based research

Credit: Shimpei Ishiyama, Michael Brecht; Source: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/rats-enjoy-being-tickled-when-they-re-in-the-right-mood-video/

Introduction:

If you missed our post about the critical role that laboratory animals play in solving our current worldwide health concerns, please take a look here.

To recap, there are several animals that offer an undeniably valuable resource to the scientists concerned with learning how diseases work, and what the efficacy and risks of the drugs are that we develop to treat these diseases. The Scientific Community, however, is not some soulless amoral hive that do whatever it takes to simply check the boxes on whatever legislation they have to, to get a patent through that Big Pharma can profit off of – We are talking about real people with loving hearts, who interact with real, and cute, animals on a daily basis.

If you are one of these amazing scientists, you would want to keep your animals as happy as possible. Briza Scientific wants to help you do that.

Enemies in Co-dependence

Photo by DSD Photography from Pexels

Rats and humans are not evolved to love one another. Rats benefit indirectly by human domination over an area, because humans eliminate competitors and predators, create structures that rats can repurpose for sheltering and breeding, and we offer a buffet by producing, stockpiling, and throwing away tons of food. However, despite this commensalism, humans generally still perceive rats as vermin, and if one were caught peeking into our cupboards, many people would at least threaten violence, if not kill it outright.

As you can imagine, being a lab rat locked up in the presence of a beast 300 times your size, which evolution has pitted you at odds with, is certainly a stressful proposition.

Not to over anthropomorphise, but laboratory animals do share much of their neurology and behavioural dynamics with us and it is important and useful to our work if we learn to empathise with them. Like humans, Rats feel stress and can have behavioural and physiological changes as result. These stressors are obviously different for rats than for us, as is the resultant behaviour exhibited. Why does stress matter though?

Rats suffering environmental stress may adopt adverse behaviours like self-harm, over aggressiveness, cannibalism, etc., making the effective care of the animals almost impossible. Physiological effects such as elevated levels of stress hormones and the physiological effects that they cause, such as changes in how inflammation is regulated, as well as the control of blood pressure, blood glucose and glucose metabolism, and immune function. Any disease or medication studied where blood pressure, immune response, inflammation, or metabolism is affected (these are critical indicators for virtually all disease and drug research) is seriously handicapped.

The investigator has no way to determine to what extent their data is skewed a result the environmental stress. It compromises the entire study, wastes money and time, results in misuse and suffering of animals under your care, and ultimately produces sub-standard research.

What does tickling have to do with anything?

So how do we work with these fascinatingly intelligent, perceptive, and socially nuanced animals in captivity, man-handled by their natural enemy? We give them an environment enriched with toys and materials that encourage and facilitate instinctive behaviours, such as nesting, playing, and hiding. We also learn how to read their body language and expressions – if you have not seen a Grimace Scale before, we need to talk…

Sotocinal, Susana & Sorge, Robert & Zaloum, Austin & Tuttle, Alexander & Martin, Loren & Wieskopf, Jeffrey & Mapplebeck, Josiane & Wei, Peng & Zhan, Shu & Zhang, Shuren & McDougall, Jason & King, Oliver & Mogil, Jeffrey. (2011). The Rat Grimace Scale: A partially automated method for quantifying pain in the laboratory rat via facial expressions. Molecular pain. 7. 55. 10.1186/1744-8069-7-55.

And yes, also tickle them. Rats love tickles (once they get comfortable with you and you catch them in the right mood). Popping them carefully on their backs and rubbing their bellies gently literally makes them emit a giggle too high pitched for us to hear, but well documented to be real. This may seem like a cry for help or a fear response, but its not. Happy rats will deliberately seek out this interaction and will return to you for more. They have fun.

Rats having fun and choosing human interaction are sure signs that they are not stressed and do not feel threatened. This bodes well for their general health and wellbeing, and baseline physiological parameters, which means you are on track to get useable and reliable results in whatever research you are doing.

Ok, but I work with a baboon, do I tickle him too?

No. Do not tickle a baboon.

At least, not until someone that knows what they are doing taught you what you need to know first.

A Grass Cutter used in research in West Africa. Photo: Helgaard Steenkamp

The best practice principles of animal research are a vast and detailed labyrinth, widely varied, usually very species specific, often dictated by regulations, definitely subject to standards (perhaps not locally enforced, but expected by the global research community), and must involve advanced technical expertise.

Photo by Lex Photography from Pexels

Briza Scientific has acquired a network of professional associates, with decades of experience managing laboratories to top international standards, in-depth knowledge of many species, applications, and operational strategies for a wide range of facilities, whatever your need may be, they are making themselves available to Briza Scientific clients to assist and advise.

Briza Scientific have partnered up with these individuals so we can bring her expertise and passion for laboratory animal welfare to your institution. We have a comprehensive range of services available, from Workshops, Seminars and Training Courses, all the way to the drawing up of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), Advising in Facility Design, and Health and Safety policy development.

Get in touch NOW!

If you work at an Research Animal Facility of any kind, please reach out to us and we will gladly assist you and determine the best way to help you reach your goals.

Email: helgaard@brizascientific.com

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