Nature Medicine | Spoonful of Medicine

A housing crisis looms for US research involving lab animals

What a difference a few inches can make. On 1 January, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) adopted the recommendations set forth in the latest version of the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, and already the usually soporific document is raising hackles.

Among other measures, the document—the eighth such volume from the US National Research Council and the first update since 1996—sets out guidelines for the minimum number of square inches required to house female rodents and their offspring. The recommended cage sizes are roomier than the accommodations currently in use at most animal research facilities in the country, and so adopting the new policy could be an expensive undertaking with little proven benefit, critics say.

“There is no data indicating that the current housing requirements are inadequate,” says Frankie Trull, president of the National Association of Biomedical Research, a Washington, DC-based advocacy group. “The research community was very surprised by the new rules.”

The uproar, news of which was broken earlier this week by National Public Radio, has come as a surprise to the NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW), which commissioned the review of the Guide and oversees its implementation. “The concerns seem to have been based on misinterpretation of the standards in the Guide,” Patricia Brown, director of the OLAW, wrote in an email. “Implementation of the Guide is expected to have a minimal impact on most institutions.”

Under the new rules, institutions that receive NIH funds will have to submit plans for how they plan to implement the guidelines by the end of the year. To help lessen the impact, the OLAW says institutions may request an exemption from the cage recommendations on animal-welfare grounds. But, as Trull points out, exemptions can be reversed with each annual review, and institutions cannot be sure that the guidelines will not be more strictly enforced in the future.

Such uncertainty, especially when compliance carries an enormous price tag, is detrimental to institutions with limited funds. “People are confused,” Trull says, “and the lack of certainty makes planning ahead difficult.”

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