Features | Lab rats don’t get enough respect

Test subjects save lives, deserve humane treatment

The majority of the lip balms and shampoos in pharmacies boast the words “Not Tested on Animals.” But apart from the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 implemented for humane treatment of lab animals, PETA has thus far left the testing of medicine on rats untouched. Perhaps they have been too preoccupied harassing Barack Obama for killing a gnat during his interview with CNBC, or perhaps even these animal enthusiasts recognize the delicacy of the predicament. Scientific labs in universities regularly use rats to test chemicals, often leading to the discovery of extensive cancer treatments, as well as neurological medication for psychological illnesses.

Dogs are man’s best friend, and dolphins flip their tails and smile at you – but why should society care about rats? Unlike dogs, who many regard as members of their family, rats do not adapt to their social environment, and they show little character themselves. In fact, the Animal Welfare Act does not define rats as animals under their protective legislation, and this is likely due to their reputation as pests in homes across the world, as well as their high rate of reproduction. To most they are annoying, replaceable creatures who rank low on the cuteness scale. Nonetheless, the scientific community of McGill and universities across Canada have acquired a reverence for the rats used in medical testing.

Dissecting the overall humanity of testing chemicals on rats requires an overview of the procedures. In medical projects involving craniotomies, rats are given both local and general anesthetics that protect them from any pain during surgery. The scientists can also monitor the fading effectiveness of anesthesia by watching for contraction of the rat’s hind limbs, a signal of pain, allowing them to administer a higher dosage of anesthesia. Movement of a rat’s whiskers is an indication of increased consciousness, also requiring more anesthesia. Through observations such as these, scientists can largely control the pain felt by lab animals. One McGill physiology student with experience working in these labs commented that, “during these invasive procedures, the rats are effectively unconscious and do not feel pain.”

In certain neurological experiments that employ microstimulation – recording neural activity intra-cranially, animals may be required to maintain a certain level of consciousness. This occurs in humans with procedures such as Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS), a surgery performed on patients with Parkinson’s Disease. However, in these operations there is no pain when the cortex is penetrated due to the lack of pain receptors within the brain. Thus, only a local anesthetic is required for both rats and humans. With the technological and medicinal advances made in the past decades, pain can often be avoided no matter the organism.

In visiting one of these labs, I encountered a poster of a white lab rat staring at me with beady red eyes. It read, “He has saved more lives than 9-1-1,” placing their significant role into perspective. The poster is indicative of the respectful manner in which rats are regarded within the scientific community. When taking into account the extensive remedies that have been unearthed due to medical testing on rats throughout universities, including McGill, the humane sacrifice of approximately 30 rats per month has allowed the whole of the human race to benefit. As one of the most highly regarded universities in North America, the labs at McGill set an example for the rest and thus must be closely monitored to ensure the animals continue to receive quality treatment.


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