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Ethics of Animals in Research

Why animals play a crucial role in research

At the start of the twenty-first century, it was obvious to the public as well as to the scientific community that the scientific enterprise routinely begs a host of ethical questions. In the area of animal-based research, these can include questions such as:

  • Is there anything inherently wrong with transfering human genes into other species?
  • Is the pursuit of knowledge enough to justify carrying out experiments involving pain and/or distress to an animal?
  • When primates are no longer needed for research, should they be destroyed humanely or retired to a primate sanctuary?
  • If research involves dogs, is it better to use purpose-bred laboratory dogs or unclaimed strays from a pound?

The informed public expects scientists to have thought through these and other issues. To do this, scientists need to see the ethical issues not as someone else's field, not as peripheral to the scientific enterprise, but as an essential element of being a scientist (Monamy, 2000).

The word philosophy, derived from the Greek literally means "love of wisdom". In keeping with its roots, the Cambridge International Dictionary defines the word philosophy as "the use of reason in understanding such things as the nature of reality and existence, the use and limits of knowledge and the principles that govern and influence moral judgment". As an academic discipline, philosophy’s chief branches include logic, metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.

Although "ethics" is an academic discipline in its own right, it is useful for scientists to understand the concepts used in ethical discussions. Just as a discussion of business ethics should involve business people, so a discussion of ethics in science should actively involve scientists, as scientists bring an in-depth knowledge and data, necessary to inform decision making. Discussion of any of the issues listed at the beginning of this module would benefit from an understanding of the scientific data associated with the issue.

Ethics is derived from the Greek ethos meaning custom, people, the predominant community spirit. Within that community spirit, morality is the distinction between right and wrong. The field of ethics, also called moral philosophy, involves developing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behaviour. There has been a tendency for scientists to view themselves and their work outside this realm; however, increasingly science is being seen as part of society rather than apart from it. For example, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research is mandated by Parliament to promote, assist, and undertake health research that meets the highest standards of ethics. It now has an ethics secretariat and ethics directors associated with each of the Institutes.

Philosophers divide "ethics" into three distinct but related kinds of inquiry: metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics.

Metaethics, also known as analytical ethics, investigates where our ethical principles come from, and what they mean. For example: Are ethical principles merely social inventions? Do they involve more than expressions of our individual emotions? Answers to these types of questions focus on issues of universal truths, the will of God, the role of reason in ethical judgment, as well as the meaning of ethical terms themselves.

In the context of animal experimentation, a metaethical question is the role of reason in motivating moral actions.

Two sides of the historical debate in this area are:

  1. only emotions can motivate people to act morally (Hume); and,
  2. the opposing stance; true moral action is motivated only by reason when it is free of emotion and desire (Kant).

Current thinking tends to favour a rationalist approach and focusses on the reasoning and argumentation process that takes place when making moral choices. According to Baier, proper moral decision making involves giving the best reasons in support of one course of action versus another.

Normative ethics, also known as substantive ethics, involves a more practical task which is to arrive at moral standards or norms that regulate right or wrong, good and bad for evaluation and decision.

Applied ethics is the philosophical examination of problems in private and public life that are matters of moral judgment. By using tools of metaethics and normative ethics, discussions in applied ethics try to resolve controversial issues such as abortion, environmental concerns, the rights of animals, and the morality of animal experimentation. It is in the area of applied ethics where scientists have the most to contribute, recognizing that philosophy is not just about analysis and clarification of moral dilemma, but can also be used to seek answers.

Toward a Coherent Ethic of Research Involving Laboratory Animals

At present there is no widely accepted comprehensive moral theory pertaining to research involving laboratory animals. Ethical theories for animal-based research have lagged behind those of human medical ethics, partially because of the focus on human research ethics following the experiments during World War II, but also because concern for non-human animals did not and still does not fit well with the dominant intellectual paradigms driving the development of the field of bioethics.

The 1970s and 1980s saw increased interest in the use of animals among moral philosophers. Australian philosopher Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975) together with Richard Ryder’s Victims of Science (1975) and Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights (1983) were published. Because these publications were both accessible to the lay public as well as firmly rooted in ethical theory they attracted the attention of opponents of animal research as well as academic philosophers. Reviving Bentham’s utilitarianism (1789), Singer argued for the liberation of animals based on equality of consideration of "interests" and their capacity to suffer, and claimed moral status for animals on that ground. Singer has been criticized by other philosophers as a preference utilitarian for his approval of the use of less sentient animals. Ryder based his considerations more on the ability of animals to experience pain, an extension of the concerns expressed by the physiologists Boyle, Hooke, and Lower as well as the English essayists Pope and Johnson. Another moral view, supported most strongly by Tom Reagan involves animal "rights." The beginnings of this theory can be seen in Primatt’s extension of the principle of justice beyond the human sphere. Other philosophers, such as Frey, Wren etc. have argued for the interests of individual species, and for the right to use animals in research.

The distinction between those who recognize rights in animals and oppose research and those who opt for animal welfare and permit or endorse humane research may be useful, but it does not accurately reflect the positions taken by leading contemporary philosophers. Some of those who advocate animal rights, such as Jerrold Tannenbaum, support the humane use of animals in research. Others, like Singer, do not claim rights for animals, but are strongly opposed to research involving animal subjects. The aim here is not to engage in a lengthy discourse of the various philosophical standpoints. Interested readers are encouraged to consult the reference list accompanying this module for a more in-depth understanding of current philosophical theories. In particular, Monamy 2000, Smith and Boyd 1991, and Tennenbaum 1999 provide a synthesis of the current philosophical discussion concerning the ethics of animal-based research.

Post Approval Monitoring

McGill University and its Affiliated Hospital Research Institutions (RI) are committed to the protection of animal subjects involved in teaching and research. In support of this commitment and the obligation to the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC), the Quality Assistance Program (QAP) was established in 2009, with the primary goal of ensuring animal welfare and assuring the integrity of the Animal Care and Use Program.

The aim of the QA Program is to work in collaboration with, and in support of research and teaching staff members as a collegial approach to achieving regulatory compliance. It serves to review procedures, educate researchers on best practices and facilitate the scientific needs of the researcher. In addition to animal welfare, the QAP also encompasses safe work practices, animal importation, biosafety, as well as controlled substance regulations.

Ensure animal well-being.

Ensure adherence to the Animal Use Protocol.

Ensure compliance with McGill and CCAC regulations, policies and guidelines.

Serve as a resource for the research and teaching community.

Identify educational and training needs.

Identify strengths and needs for refinement within McGill’s Animal Care and Use Program.

Keep the Facility Animal Care Committees informed of animal-based activities.


Standard Operating Procedures

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) provide a detailed description of commonly used procedures. SOPs offer investigators an alternative to writing detailed procedures in their protocol. Any deviation from the approved procedures must be clearly described and justified in the Animal Use Protocol application in Darwin. Approval of the protocol indicates approval of the deviation from the SOP for that project only.

The following Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) were created and/or revised by the Veterinary Care Subcommittee and/or the Occupational Health and Safety Subcommittee, and approved by the University Animal Care Committee.

If you have questions or have a recommendation to make, please send an email or talk to the Veterinarian in your area.



The “Three Rs”

Animals are used in research when there is simply no alternative that will produce the necessary results. But before scientists at McGill are allowed to employ animals in research, they must follow what are called the “Three Rs” as established by the federal government’s Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC). That means:

  • they must replace animals with alternative research methods wherever possible
  • they must reduce the use of animals to the least number possible
  • they must refine their procedures to minimize adverse conditions for animals



It isn’t easy to get a research proposal involving animals approved at McGill. Before animals are involved in research, two levels of review must occur: First, a peer research panel must determine that the proposed research project does indeed have scientific merit and that it can lead to advances in understanding and knowledge. Second, the University’s Animal Care Committee must approve the project. Even after independent research experts and the Animal Care Committee approve, the researchers must then follow strict guidelines imposed by the Canadian Council on Animal Care. At McGill, we meet or exceed federal guidelines and our facilities are inspected regularly.

Here’s how the process works:


The federal government’s Canadian Council on Animal Care oversees every aspect of research involving animals. It inspects all animal facilities, reviews the work of university committees, reviews research projects and reviews institutional policies every three years

  1. Researcher submits a scientific project proposal to an agency. The proposal gets evaluated and only the most meritorious will be supported and the use of animals will only be considered if it is established that there is no other way of achieving the research objectives.
  2. If the scientific project proposal was found to be meritorious, the researcher submits a proposal to the institution to do animal research before starting a new project or renewing an existing one
  3. The University’s Animal Care Committee (at a minimum composed of a veterinarian, researchers, a community representative, animal care staff and a compliance officer) reviews all aspects of the project with emphasis on ensuring animals will receive the best care possible for achieving the research objectives. It rejects, approves or gives conditional approval to the procedures in the project or to changes in the procedures before allowing the research to proceed. This review is about the welfare of the animals.
  4. Mandatory training of personnel on animal handling and procedures as well as health precautions are assured for all research personnel and animals
  5. The institution approves the project for one year
  6. Assistance is available to refine procedures, train people, care for the animals and, when needed, make changes to the research project
  7. Quality Assistants ensure that research personnel follow the approved proposal
  8. One year later, the researcher must submit another proposal in order to continue the research

Animal Use Protocols

Animal use protocols are referred to as AUPs. They must be submitted by a Principal Investigator to their local Facility Animal Care Committee (FACC) for review and approval.  The FACC is responsible at the local level to ensure that CCAC guidelines are followed.

Some protocols will undergo a second in-tandem review by the Ethics working group which is compromised of some ethics specialists which can offer further advise and recommendations.  New procedures cannot start and additional animals cannot be ordered before approval is granted.

This Ethics working group does not review protocols for teaching purposes.  Teaching and training AUPs go through a secondary round of evaluation called Pedagogic Merit review.  The protocol is sent to a select group of individuals that will evaluate in further detail the merits of using animal in teaching and training situations and hopefully propose existing alternatives to animal use whenever possible.

There are several sections to an AUP such as 'housing'.  This is important since every species has its own need regarding its environment; animal facility staff needs this information for husbandry purposes.

Researchers should refer to standard operating procedures whenever possible. Click here to visit the SOP webpage. 

When the Principal investigator send out their AUP for review, they must add in their password into the animal management software. This is to replace their signature, to consent to the following:

I declare the following:

The information in this application is exact and complete. I declare that all care and use of animals in this proposal will be in accordance with the guidelines and policies of the Canadian Council on Animal Care and those of McGill University and/or Research Institute when applicable. I shall request the Animal Care Committee's approval prior to any deviations from this protocol as approved. I understand that this approval is valid for one year and must be renewed on a annual basis. Approval from the committee does not guarantee availability of space, equipment and services; I will contact the animal facility supervisor for requirement. Everyone, listed in the protocol must read the Animal Use Protocol's sections pertinent to what they are mandated to perform.


Applied Ethics in Animal Experimentation

As outlined at the beginning of the module, there are genuine societal debates about animal use that need to occur outside the boundaries of the CCAC system of ethical review and oversight for the care and use of animals in science. For example, questions such as:

  • Should animals be used in research?
  • Do we as a society want xenotransplantation as a medical procedure?
  • Should marine mammals be kept in captivity?
  • Should society permit stem cell research involving fusion of human-mouse embryos?

The involvement of scientists in these debates is critical to ensure that appropriate scientific data is used to inform the debate. However, scientists also need to be aware that not only scientific knowledge will be engaged and other societal inputs may result in a prohibition of certain areas of animal-based research. (For example, an 18-month Canadian consultation to answer the question "Should xenotransplantation proceed?" led to the conclusion that scientific knowledge is not sufficiently advanced to answer two of the key issues: disease transmission, and the balance between immunosupression and the genetic modification of the source organ to prevent rejection – so it should not proceed until further research.)

When we have the answers to these types of questions, or rather when we have some understanding of where we stand as a society on these issues, at this time, in this place, then we are able to engage in the process of developing guidelines which accept as the societal norm that animals are going to be used for research, teaching and testing; or that xenotransplantation should only proceed under a set of prescribed conditions; or that it is necessary to keep some marine mammals in captivity to engage the public in concern for the marine environment.

The CCAC guidelines development process provides a framework under which the activity can take place, based on a willingness to do our best, taking into consideration all the information available. Scientists have a key role to play here in ensuring that the guidelines are based on sound scientific evidence.

Institutional animal care committees (ACCs), whose functioning is described in more detail in the Guidelines module, make ethical decisions on individual projects involving animal use. ACCs, composed of scientists/teachers, animal care personnel, personnel who do not use animals, and community representatives, function as a microcosm of society, using the guidelines and policies of the CCAC and their own expertise, experience, values, and common sense to reach decisions about what animal-based work should be allowed to proceed and under what conditions.

Scientists have a crucial role to play in ensuring responsible experimental animal care and use, and in fostering a caring attitude towards animals in the conduct of their research. Beyond overseeing the appropriate conduct of their own projects, the role that scientists play on ACCs is essential. Scientists provide ACCs with informed views on the need for animal use in science, and exchange views with all other members of the committee, including those with informed views on animal welfare and community representatives, to arrive at decisions that balance costs to animals with expected benefits for humans and animals. ACCs strive to reconcile public demands for medical, scientific, and economic progress with demands that animal welfare and integrity be protected.

The CCAC Assessment and Certification Program is peer review-based, and depends on the active involvement of scientists on CCAC assessment panels, sharing their expertise and experience with the members of the institution being assessed. Scientists also play a crucial role on the CCAC Assessment and Certification Committee, a standing committee that reviews all CCAC assessment reports and institutional implementation reports, and makes final decisions on the CCAC status of each institution in the Program.

A key element of the CCAC system is the involvement of the public in all of the CCAC’s activities, namely in establishing ethical standards through guidelines development, in ethical decision-making at the level of each institutional ACC, in providing sound judgment on each CCAC assessment panel, and in providing a public perspective on the CCAC Council. This integrated approach is essential to ensure that an external perspective is actively provided to all discussions and decisions on animal care and use in science, and that those who conduct the experiments are in tune with their obligations to the animals in their care, as well as to the other members of society.


Where to find out more

There is a wealth of information about humane animal research available on the Internet. Here is a sample of sites you might want to visit to learn more:

You can also animalcare [at] (contact Animal Care) if you have more questions or comments.

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