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Ensuring the Care of Research Animals

NIH’s mission Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer is to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability. To accomplish this mission, NIH has an ethical and legal obligation to ensure the welfare of, and minimize risks for, humans and other animals who are involved in NIH-funded research.

All animals used in federally funded research are protected by laws, regulations, and policies to ensure the smallest possible number are used to produce reliable results and the greatest commitment to their care in the context of the research. This includes ensuring their social, emotional, psychological, and physical care are considered throughout the study. Complying with these protections is a collaborative effort between NIH, federally supported scientists, and research institutions. The rules governing and protecting animal care include:

Infographic depicting puzzle pieces that represent the laws, policies, and Regulations (top left blue piece); Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (top right gray piece); the NIH Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (bottom right green piece); and scientific Reviewers (bottom left tan piece).

Oversight of NIH-Supported Animal Research

NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW) Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer oversees all NIH-supported research activities that involve live vertebrate animals. Prior to receiving funding, institutions must negotiate an Animal Welfare Assurance with OLAW, which is a document that outlines the program of humane animal care and use. Institutions must also meet the standards of the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals (Guide) Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimera resource that assists institutions in caring for and using animals in ways judged to be scientifically, technically, and humanely appropriate. Institutions in foreign countries are required to follow the International Guiding Principles for Biomedical Research Involving Animals and comply with all laws, regulations, and policies in the country where they are based. After funding, OLAW monitors NIH-funded institutions’ compliance with animal welfare laws and policies and investigates allegations concerning animal welfare and appropriate animal care. More on OLAW’s oversight process is available on this NIH Open mike blog

Federally supported scientists are accountable for the best care of research animals from the earliest stages of planning until the project’s completion. Scientists must be trained in animal care and use, including training in methods that minimize the number of animals required to obtain valid results and minimize animal pain and distress.

Below is additional information on how animal welfare is overseen at NIH supported institutions across the country and the world. For animal research that happens on the NIH campuses, please visit this website to learn more. 

Assessing the Use of Animals during Peer Review 

Through the NIH peer review process, reviewers rigorously evaluate the written descriptions in grant applications before a funding decision is made. All research projects are carefully evaluated during peer review to determine if any method could effectively be used in place of animals. If no other option exists, applicants must determine and justify the minimum number of animals and the appropriate animal model required to do the research.

NIH peer reviewers are experts from institutions around the world (not employed by NIH) who understand the scientific value of a particular animal model for studying the biological processes of a health condition and its treatments. They judge a researcher’s idea based on its scientific and technical merit, so that the most meritorious research projects are considered for NIH funding.

Assessing Use of Animals at Research Institutions 

Within the United States, an institution’s oversight committee, called the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) reviews research activities involving animals. These committees are comprised of local scientists, non-scientists, community members, and veterinarians to provide different perspectives representative of the general community. IACUCs review all animal use and may make recommendations or require modifications that optimize the animals’ welfare in the context of research before approving an activity. The NIH will not fund research by domestic grant recipients that use animals if the IACUC has not given its approval to the proposed study.

In addition to reviewing and approving proposed research activities, IACUCs carefully monitor the activities once they begin.  IACUCs ensure that the activities are conducted as approved, and that they comply with applicable regulations, policies, and institutional requirements. These committees have the authority to suspend any activities involving animals if the research is not in compliance with federal requirements or fails to adhere to what the IACUC has approved. NIH-funded institutions must report promptly to OLAW if the IACUC finds any violation of the PHS Policy. OLAW then reviews these reports and requires the institution to make appropriate corrections and to prevent further violations.

Educational Materials for Proper Animal Welfare 

OLAW, together with federal partners, research organizations, and scientists, also develops and supports educational materials to assist research institutions, principal investigators, IACUCs, veterinarians, and laboratory animal care staff to improve animal welfare. This includes:

Working together with the research institutions and scientists it funds, NIH upholds its commitment to the safety and care of animals so that researchers may continue to understand the biological processes of health and disease and to develop treatments that improve quality of life for people.