Ethics of Animals in Research

Why animals play a crucial role in research

From the development of insulin to the latest life-prolonging cancer drugs and virtually every major medical advance in between, animals have played vital roles in scientific research that have led to cures and treatments for a wide array of human diseases. They have helped scientists improve the nutritional value of our food supply and – thanks to agricultural and veterinary research – have helped bring about a better quality of life for many animals and a safer environment as well.

Millions of lives have been saved, improved and extended thanks to the results of humane scientific research that has relied upon animals at various stages. Without the use of animals, men, women and children around the world would simply not enjoy the quality and length of life they do today.


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.

For additional information, please visit 


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.

All McGill SOPs can be found here:


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



Researchers and everyone involved in research with animals – including veterinarians and animal-care technicians – are sincerely concerned about the welfare of animals that are part of the research process. But researchers are also concerned about the sick and disabled among us who are desperate for ways to deal with pain or the prognosis of fatal illness or who seek better ways to ease their suffering from a chronic medical condition.

Thousands, perhaps millions, of lives can be improved by a successful research project that leads to better care and treatment – for the grandfather taken by Alzheimer’s disease, the mother stricken with breast cancer, the child learning to live with diabetes, the whole segment of a community trying to cope with excessive levels of cholesterol or heart disease. Those are the people the researchers are trying to help.


How animals have helped

At McGill, recent research involving animals has led to the following advancements:

  • the discovery of previously unknown interactions between genes that control whether cells become cancerous
  • the development of new, experimental treatments for diseases that affect the nervous system
  • a better understanding of the mechanisms of blood flow that has helped in the development of drugs to ease vascular head pain

Other familiar breakthroughs involving animal research have included:

  • the discovery of insulin, penicillin, streptomycin and yellow fever vaccine
  • the treatment for cancer, aids, hypertension, cardiac stents, high cholesterol, depression
  • the development of such important medical devices as the electrocardiogram, computer assisted tomography (CAT scan) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • improved understanding of how cells work, how genetic differences play a role in the development of life and disease, immunity and the regulation of cholesterol

There are, in fact, too many medical research breakthroughs to list them all here. But it is accurate to say that cancer patients are living longer, HIV sufferers are living longer, diabetics are living longer thanks to research that has involved animals. Those diseases used to be automatic – and almost always rapid – death sentences. Now, they needn’t be.

Animals in laboratories around the world have played an invaluable role in helping us understand disease and what we need to do to treat it or cure it.


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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