Handling and restraint

Technician demonstrating correct restraint of a rabbitLaboratory animals are handled for a number of reasons, e.g. from simple tasks such as transfer from one cage to another or to a balance for weighing, to more complex procedures such as restraint in which the animal is immobilised whilst a veterinary or scientific procedure is performed on it. Whatever the purpose, it is important handling is conducted in a manner that will cause minimal stress to the animal with negligible risk of injury to the person performing it. Minimising stress is important from a scientific standpoint as well as an animal welfare one; fear and stress responses can result in physiological changes that may increase data variability and the number of animals needed to achieve satisfactorily significant results.

No matter how simple a procedure may appear, the aim must always be to perform it competently and with minimal inconvenience to the animal. To achieve this aim there are a number of key factors to be taken into consideration, including:

  • the method of approach
  • the animals likely reaction to the handling or restraint procedure
  • the method of handling or restraint to be employed
  • the safe return to its home cage

All animals should be approached in a calm, quiet and confident manner. Developing confidence will, invariably, take the novice handler time and require ample practice but often an outside show of confidence, by avoiding hesitation and nervous hand movements, will initially suffice. Softly talking to the animals during the approach will have a calming influence on many animals and often has a similar effect on the person who is to handle them.

The behaviour of animals may vary under different circumstances, for example:

  • a mother with a litter may act in a protective manner when she perceives her young are threatened
  • a sick animal may resent being handled
  • a singly-housed animal may react in a more fearful or aggressive manner to those housed in groups

Cats playing with technician during their socialisation periodA skilled and caring handler will be aware of these changes in normal behaviour and take the appropriate time and care to calm the animal, wherever possible and avoid any possibility of injury to either the animal or themselves.

Animals should be handled regularly to accustom them to human contact and allow for regular clinical examinations. The earlier in the animals life this process of socialisation and habituation can begin the greater impact it will have, making future handling and restraint less stressful for the animal and easier for the handler.

There are correct ways of handling and restraining all animals and these have been developed and refined over many years. If there are doubts regarding the correct method, advice, assistance and training should be sought from the Named Animal Care and Welfare Officer (NACWO) or another expert at the establishment. There are many books and audio-visual programmes describing or demonstrating correct animal handling techniques (see the resources in this Information Portal), but these should be used as a guide and not as a replacement for expert tuition.

If restraint is necessary to control an animal during a scientific procedure, then the method used should provide the least restraint required to allow the procedure to be performed properly. The duration and frequency of restraint should always be minimised.

At the end of the procedure, the animal should be returned to its cage in a careful manner and the cage or pen made secure. Positive reinforcement, for example the provision of a food reward or praise in the case of dogs, cats and primates, should be considered as, in many cases, this will help to ease the process when it is next performed.

See the below video for the correct techniques for handling and restraint of rabbits. For more information about handling laboratory animals see the CD-ROM/DVD 'Handle with Care' at www.iat.org.uk and Procedures With Care




  • Institute of Animal Technology  (2004), Handle with Care, DVD and CD-ROM
    Open Link

  • British Veterinary Association Animal Welfare Foundation (2001), Practical animal handling: Small mammals, London, British Veterinary Association, Free CD-ROM
    Open Link

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