Animal experimentation: are we allowed to do that? In this thematic portal, researchers of the Swiss Laboratory Animal Science Association give answers to frequently asked questions.

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How do we ensure that experiments are conducted in accordance to regulations?

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Every animal experiment in Switzerland must be approved by the competent cantonal veterinary office. The cantonal animal protection commission assesses each application individually to determine whether the suffering of an animal can be justified weighing it against the benefit of the experiment. In this context, weighing of interests means weighing certain interests of society that are worthy of protection (e.g. gaining knowledge, restoring or protecting the health of humans and animals) against the protection of the animal from a burden (e.g. pain, harm, fear). Adherence to the 3Rs principle is very important here – an experiment must be designed to cause as little constraint as possible to the experimental animals used.

The Animal Experimentation Commission consists of representatives from research, animal welfare groups, veterinarians, and other experts. Permits are issued by the cantonal veterinary office, often with specific conditions, which must be fulfilled. At the end of each year and after expiry of the experimental permit, the applicant must state how many animals were used and what results were obtained, or how great the stress actually was for the animals in the experiment. These figures are published every year by the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office (FSVO).

The cantonal veterinary office must check whether animal husbandry and experiments comply with the law. Every year, the cantonal office inspects the performance of animal experiments for at least one fifth of the current licences. It inspects the documentation. In this way, it checks whether the licences and conditions are being complied with, whether those responsible have the required level of training and whether the animals are being kept in accordance with the legislation. The animal protection commissions support the authorities in these inspections.

In addition, institutes which carry out animal experiments are required to employ animal welfare officers who also carry out internal inspections of animal husbandry and experiments.

What is considered an animal experiment in Switzerland?

Whenever researchers use animals protected under the Animal Protection Act to test a scientific question, the procedure is considered an animal experiment in Switzerland. This can apply to very different areas, e.g. if fundamental biological processes in an organism are to be better understood or diseases need to be studied. Substance testing in drug development for humans and animals is also included, as is the development and testing of the safety of implants, artificial heart valves and joints. If animals are used to test measuring devices (e.g. new imaging procedures), the intervention is also considered an animal experiment.

Animals are also used in the training and continued education of various professional groups, and thus the activities are considered animal experiments, i.e. they do not only concern people who carry out animal experiments in the laboratory. For example, training on animals for future veterinarians or veterinary assistants, who must learn how to handle and examine or treat animals, is also considered an animal experiment. Firefighters who learn how to evacuate animals from a burning barn also need an animal experiment licence for this training. The same applies to people who train to become therapists for animal-assisted therapies (e.g. to activate quadriplegics or autistic people).

Many animal experiments are also conducted for the benefit of the animals. This is the case, for example, in stocktaking of wild animal populations, in research into the spread of certain diseases or in testing fish ladders, which help wild fish to bypass otherwise insurmountable weirs and dam walls on their migrations. Improvements in livestock farming or animal feed are also tested in experiments with animals.

Which animals are protected by the Swiss Animal Protection Act?

The Swiss Animal Protection Act protects all vertebrates (mammals, fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles), octopuses (cephalopods) and higher crustaceans (e.g. lobsters, crayfish). In addition, vertebrates are protected in the last third of their individual development as an embryo or foetus. Other animals such as insects or arachnids are not protected by the Animal Protection Act. Experiments with these animals therefore do not require an authorisation. However, other rules, e.g. from nature conservation legislation, may apply.

Which permits are required to conduct animal experiments?

In addition to the training requirements and permissions for investigators conducting or leading experiments, a valid authorisation is required for each animal experiment. This is issued by the cantonal veterinary authorities, provided they judge the proposed experiment to be scientifically and ethically justifiable. In addition, the animal facilities in which the experimental animals are housed, also require a permit for animal husbandry from the cantonal veterinary authorities. If genetically modified animals are used, the animal facilities also require an additional permit. In the case of experiments with wild animals in the open field, further permits may also be required (e.g. for the capture of wild animals), which are subject to nature conservation or hunting legislation.

Is everyone allowed to carry out animal experiments? And are you allowed to do whatever you want?

No. All persons working with animals must undergo special training tailored to their work and to the type of animal they use. This is regulated in the Animal Protection Act and in the ordinances regulating animal Protection and Training. The latter describes what content must be taught and to what extent, and regulates the conditions for examinations, which are also prescribed by law for the completion of training. These requirements apply to animal keepers, laboratory assistants, managers of animal facilities as well as to researchers and students. Only those who have successfully completed the basic training required by law (LTK, RESAL) are recognised by the cantonal veterinary authorities as experimentalists or study leaders and are allowed to carry out animal experiments in Switzerland. In addition, these persons must undergo regular further training and attend at least four days of further training within four years. The obligation to undergo continued education is monitored by the competent authorities.