Half a million fishes used in experiments in the UK

24.04.19

This World Day for Animals in Laboratories, we're focusing on the half a million fishes used in experiments in the UK.

Our call for reduced suffering for all lab animals

fishes


Today, on World Day for Animals in Laboratories (April 24), we're calling for more to be done to reduce the use and suffering of all animals in experiments.

Whilst rats, mice, dogs and monkeys are thought of as animals commonly used in research, millions of fishes are also used in experiments around the world.

The zebrafish, a member of the minnow family, is not only a popular aquarium fish but is also increasingly used in research - in fact, it's now the second most commonly used lab animal in the UK.

Not only that, but fish use in research and testing is increasing dramatically despite the recognition that these animals can feel pain, distress and positive emotions just like other animals.

Dr Penny Hawkins, Head of our Research Animals Department, said:

Many people now recognise that fishes can experience pain, suffering and distress and positive emotions, can have complex social lives and are capable of thought processing that can rival many other so-called 'higher' animals. We believe that fishes used in labs should have much more consideration when it comes to replacement with humane alternatives, reducing suffering, and trying to give lab animals a 'good life'.

The law that regulates lab animal care and use acknowledges that fishes should have the same consideration as other animals, like mice, dogs and monkeys. Although fishes are still sometimes unfortunately perceived as presenting less of an ethical and animal welfare problem than other animals in research and testing. Unbelievably, fishes are sometimes described as 'replacement alternatives'!

Fishes were used in 16 percent of all UK experimental procedures

In the UK in 2017 - of the total 3.79 million procedures undertaken - over half a million of these were carried out on fishes, including around 213,000 for 'basic research' and over 200,000 for the creation and breeding of genetically altered fishes.

This means that fishes were used in 16 percent of all UK experimental procedures, for example as 'models' of diseases and in studying how embryos develop. 11 percent of the procedures were in producing genetically altered animals.

Taken together, these procedures involved over half a million individual fishes in the UK alone - mostly zebrafish, although species such as guppies, medaka, salmon and trout are also used.

Penny said:

Fish used in research and testing is becoming ever more commonplace, but sadly they're years behind mammals when it comes to being provided with an interesting environment, adequate pain relief and effective welfare assessment.

It's great that the 'Blue Planet' series raised awareness of plastic pollution, but it would be even better if the amazing fish behaviours shown in the series also made people think again and question their preconceptions about these incredibly complex and diverse animals.

Fishes are clever and can even outperform chimpanzees

Despite enduring myths such as the goldfish 'three-second memory', fishes have been found to have advanced cognitive abilities, including counting, logical reasoning and the ability to recognise individual human faces. One species - the cleaner wrasse - was even found to outperform chimpanzees in a learning task. And the cleaner wrasse was also found to be able to pass the 'mirror test' suggesting self-awareness, something only a handful of animals have been found to do.Penny concludes:

As fish use has risen, people within the scientific community are increasingly challenging assumptions about fishes being 'lower' animals, and pointing out that the ethical and animal welfare issues are not somehow solved by using fish instead of mammals. We completely agree, and want to see vastly increased efforts being made to reduce the use and suffering of all animals in research, regardless of whether they have fur, feathers or fins.

You can find out more about our work to improve the lives of research animals in our lab animals section.