Animal Testing

What is animal testing?

Both live and deceased animals are used for commercial or scientific research or educational purposes in a range of capacities. usually, this is for medical, veterinary and environmental research.

'Vivisection' refers specifically to the cutting of, or operation on, a living animal.. This can cause pain or distress, although anaesthetic is used. It is frequently used by opponents as a pejorative synonym for the more general 'animal testing'.

The types of tests carried out on animals often involve trialling new medical innovations.  Cosmetics testing has been illegal since 1998.


Testing on animals has a long medical history. The techniques have been viewed by many as invaluable in the development of modern science and the understanding of the human condition.

In 1859, Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory reinforced the conception that animals could serve as models for humans in the study of biology and physiology.

British women in Florence are commonly thought to have led the first organised protest against vivisection in 1863. The Cruelty to Animals Act, allowing the use of anaesthetics during vivisection, was passed in England in 1876.

Animal testing peaked in the early 1970s, and has been in decline since, due to both increased public pressure to reduce the numbers of animals tested and the development of available alternatives.

In response to widespread protests at testing conditions and regulations, and the adoption of European Directive 86/609/EEC, the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 outlined a number of guidelines and regulations for scientific and commercial testing in the UK.

The Animal Procedures Committee, an advisory, non-departmental public body, was established and appointed under the terms of sections 19 and 20 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986.

In November 2008, the European Commission published a proposed revision of the 1986 Directive 86/609 with a view to strengthening animal protection across the EU. A year later in November 2009, the House of Lords European Union Committee called for a revised Directive to be agreed and "implemented consistently", in order to achieve "a levelling-up of standards of animal welfare across all Member States."

On 22 September 2010 the EU adopted Directive 2010/63/EU to update Directive 86/609. The EU stated that the aim of the new Directive was to strengthen legislation, improve the welfare of those animals still used, and to "firmly anchor" the principle of the Three Rs, to Reduce, Refine and Replace the use of animals, in EU legislation.

Member States were given 24 months to adopt and publish national legislation to transpose the provisions of the new Directive, which took effect from 1 January 2013.


Laboratory animals are used for many different purposes in research and testing, raising a variety of ethical, welfare and scientific issues.

Some people feel that painful or stressful experimentation on living animals for any purpose is morally abhorrent. Commercial testing of non-medical products is largely opposed, but fewer place the welfare of laboratory animals above the development of life-saving medical treatments. The use of great apes – man's closest genetic relations – is particularly controversial and has been illegal since 1986.

Public feelings about animal testing have led many manufacturers and retailers to advertise their 'cruelty-free' credentials – Anita Roddick's 'Body Shop' chain was at the forefront of this movement.

However, animal testing has also been a subject that has provoked extremism and terrorism, with frequent attacks on laboratories by animal rights activists from groups such as the Animal Liberation Front. In August 2000, animal liberation extremists placed petrol bombs in five cars belonging to staff from the Huntingdon Life Sciences laboratory causing extensive damage. This threat from extremists led to the bankers of Huntingdon Life Sciences withdrawing their credit in 2002, for fear of reprisals.

The Weatherall Report into 'The Use of Non-Human Primates in Research', published in December 2006, attracted widespread controversy. This working group report chaired by Sir David Weatherall and sponsored by the Royal Society, the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the Academy of Medical Sciences, concluded that there was "a strong scientific case" for maintaining the "carefully regulated" use of non-human primates in certain aspects of medical and biological research.

The report also recommended that funding organisations, both governmental and charitable, "should continue to take every opportunity to encourage and fund research into developing alternatives to the use of non-human primates for both research and toxicology."

But several organisations were highly critical of the committee's conclusions. The Dr Hadwen Trust for Humane Research dismissed the report as "a pedestrian and persistently negative interpretation of the opportunities to replace primate use." The RSPCA said it had expected the committee to "facilitate the development of a strategy for the replacement of primates in all types of scientific experiment", but had "fallen far short" of achieving this.

The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) was equally disappointed by the report, saying it "presents a defence of primate research without serious attention being given to alternative approaches".

The 50th anniversary of the launch of the 3Rs concept, published in the book "The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique" by William Russell and Rex Burch, was marked in 2009 with several organisations expressing concern about the number of animals still being used in research.

In July 2010, figures published by the Home Office showed that experiments on animals in the UK had fallen by 1% to just over 3.6 million, with a 10% decrease in the number of toxicology tests carried out on animals. The Dr Hadwen Trust for Humane Research welcomed the news and expressed the hope that this marked the beginning of a new trend in the increased use of animal replacement techniques. However, there was later another rise in animal testing.

However, the Trust also noted that although the use of non-human primates had decreased, there had been a marked increase in the use of new world primates such as marmosets and tamarins. The charity said this was "particularly concerning" as most of these experiments studied human diseases which do not exist in non-human primates, such as Parkinson's Disease, and this they suggested "significantly challenges" the validity of the tests.

The optimism that followed the news of a 1% fall in experiments on animals was short-lived.  New figures from the Home Office published in July 2011 showed there had been a 3% increase in the number of scientific procedures carried out on living animals, much to the dismay of the animal charities.

The RSPCA immediately challenged the Government to "prove it has a genuine commitment" to reducing the numbers of animals used in laboratories. RSPCA senior scientist Barney Reed said: “Despite consistently being told that experiments using animals are only ever undertaken where absolutely necessary, we've seen an astonishing 37 per cent increase in animal use over the last decade." The charity was particularly worried that the figure included a 10% increase in the numbers of procedures using primates such as marmosets.

The Dr Hadwen Trust was "appalled to learn that despite the growing consensus in the scientific community that challenges the validity of animal use for human health, animal use has reached its highest level for 24 years."

A new 'Review of Research Using Non-Human Primates", led by Professor Sir Patrick Bateson, was published in July 2011, and raised further concerns. The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection described the report as "a chilling insight into primate research". The BUAV noted that according to the review, one in ten experiments "did not have a medical benefit"; and that a number of key concerns were expressed by the review regarding animal welfare costs, the application and relevance to humans and the overstating of medical benefits by researchers.

The Government launched a consultation on the transposition of the new EU directive 2010/63/EU – protection of animals used for scientific purposes – to run until 5 September 2011. Animal charities urged their members to use the consultation to ensure that the UK law was not watered down to the EU minimum standard required under the Directive. The government argued that there was no intention to water down standards and individual countries could retain their standards where they were higher. They also used the consultation to ensure that the Government was held to its Coalition pledge to reduce the use of animals in research.

New figures published by the Home Office in July 2012 showed an increase in the number scientific procedures involving living animals – despite Coalition promises to reduce the number. Critics said the policy would simply result in the shifting of animal research work abroad, where research animal welfare is typically worse than in the UK.

The Dr Hadwen Trust described the 2% rise in animal procedures over the past 12 months as "hugely disappointing". The RSPCA demanded that more be done towards reducing both animal numbers and suffering – "starting with those animals who currently suffer the most".


Numbers of procedures started in 2011 compared with 2010, unless indicated otherwise:

Just over 3.79 million scientific procedures were started in Great Britain in 2011, increasing 2 per cent (+68,100). Breeding of genetically modified (GM) animals and harmful mutants (HM), mainly mice, remained stable, accounting for 1.62 million procedures.

Excluding the breeding of GM and HM animals, the total number of procedures increased in 2011 (an increase of +71,300 or +3%, from 2.10 million to 2.18 million).

There were increases in numbers of procedures for several species, for example cats (+26%), pigs (+37%), birds (+14%) and fish (+15%). There were falls for several species, for example rats (-11%), guinea pigs (-16%), dogs (-21%) and non-human primates (-47% with new world monkeys -68% and old world monkeys -41%). It should be noted that where few animals are used, small variations in the numbers of animals can lead to large percentile differences.

There was an increase (+2%) in the numbers of procedures for safety testing (toxicology) to 399,000, due to increased use of fish in regulatory toxicology, with a higher proportion carried out to meet more than one legislative/regulatory requirement (75% compared with 72% in 2010). Most toxicology procedures are carried out in the commercial sector where the number of procedures also rose (+1%). Research in the sector remains small compared to universities and medical schools, however.

The number of non-toxicology procedures increased 2 per cent to 3.39 million, reflecting the higher numbers of procedures carried out in universities (+7%), particularly fundamental research. The increase for non-toxicology included increases in physiology (+115,100), immunology (+62,000) and parasitology (+22,000) whilst ecology (-30,300), anatomy (-27,000), biochemistry (-11,900) and cancer research (-10,200) fell.

There were 1.08 million more procedures than in 2000 (+40%) mostly accounted for by breeding to produce GM and HM animals (+918,000, of which mice +795,000). Excluding such breeding, the total number of procedures was slightly higher than in 2000 (+8% or +159,900).

Source: Home Office – July 2012


"We will end the testing of household products on animals and work to reduce the use of animals in scientific research."

The Coalition: Our programme for government.

"It is clear that much work needs to be done to replace the use of animals in experiments and to promote the development of proven alternatives that are better scientifically, economically and morally.
"With the Government unwilling to include a ban on the use of stray cats and dogs in the update of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, the worry is that the number of experiments using animals may increase further in future years."

Kailah Eglington, chief executive of the Dr Hadwen Trust – July 2012

"Each animal bred or used for research, whether a mouse, fish or monkey, is an individual capable of experiencing pain, suffering and distress.
"Any level of suffering is a concern for the RSPCA, but ending severe suffering is a top priority.
"We want the government to commit to ending severe animal suffering and for scientists to focus on changing these procedures so they cause as little pain and psychological suffering as possible."

RSPCA senior scientist, Dr Penny Hawkins – July 2012