Improved welfare for animals

Interview with animal caretaker Martin Carlsen from Novo Nordisk animal facility.

How have you experienced the development of welfare for animals that are kept for studies?

I have been working with animals for more than 20 years and I have seen a very positive development. In the 1980’s there was no focus on the size of the cages and the well-being of the animals.

Today we have regulations for animal welfare and at Novo Nordisk we provide conditions that are better than many animals have in people’s private homes.
Animals at Novo Nordisk share large cages with other animals of their species. They have enrichments like hiding places, objects for chewing and some extra food or snacks a couple of times during the week. Our dogs are taken for daily exercise on the agility track in the farm yard and at least two times during the week on a walk in the surrounding nature.

Some initiatives like socialising and hiding places are based on science. Others are based on common sense where we observe a positive effect on the animals when we offer them objects for chewing and extra food rewards.

How has this development influenced your life and work?

It is far more satisfying to work with animals when we have the possibilities and means to take proper care of them. Sometimes the welfare initiatives we provide the animals with mean more work and efforts for my colleagues and I: but the joy of experiencing how the animals are playing and socialising fully compensates for this. In some ways our working conditions have also been improved. As an example the water supply for the animals has been automated, and we do not have to carry heavy water bottles around.

What is your personal opinion about animal studies?

Over the years my concerns for the animals' welfare have increased – this is of course also inspired by the debate, awareness and guidelines on how animals should be housed and treated.

Preferably we should not use animals for studies. But so far we do not have alternatives for every important part of the research for new and better medicine for humans.
I can fully answer for the conditions our animals are offered. My colleagues and I are responsible for the animals and we are trained to evaluate the health status of animals. We have the means to stop studies at any given time and give the animal a humane endpoint to prevent it from suffering unnecessarily.

We can call a veterinarian at any time and the veterinarians respect our judgement.

Do you and your colleagues ever discus animal welfare?

Very often – it is part of our jobs. We have chosen to work with animals, because we like animals and want to offer them a good life. We share the responsibility for the welfare of the animals and we openly discuss it.
We act as advisors to the researchers because we are familiar with the behaviour of the animals, and we know how to treat and handle them with respect.
It is always in our minds that healthy and thriving animals provide the basis for the best and most reliable results of the studies.

How well are you trained to decide when to interfere in a study?

We constantly evaluate the animals' health status and ability to move. We have very specific guidelines giving exact measures for eg acceptable weight loss. For animals with diabetes we especially evaluate their ability to tidy up themselves. Weight gain is a well-known side effect of diabetes and this can restrict their movements.
We often ask colleagues for a second opinion and we are always able to call a veterinarian if we are in doubt about the condition of an animal. Furthermore we are allowed to give the animals pain-relieving drugs until they can be seen by a veterinarian.

How does it affect your judgement of the animals’ conditions if it means interfering in a study?

It does not affect my judgement at all. We have very precise guidelines and if we are the least in doubt, the welfare of the animals is decisive.

The Novo Nordisk Research and Development Bioethics Council (RDBC) issues guidelines about the treatment of the animals and all studies are discussed very thoroughly in our Ethics Review Council (ERC). The members in the council are animal assistants, researchers and laymen. This ensures a very broad discussion about the concerns of the animals.
For every study we have discussions with the researchers and their assistants. It is our responsibility to guide and advise the researchers on how the study can be carried out with considerations for the welfare of the animals.

We might make minor adjustments of studies underway but because of the guidelines and preparations we never reach a point where the animals suffer unnecessarily.