Non-human primates

There is a great deal of published information on the housing and husbandry of non-human primates. The underlying principle is to provide safe, comfortable and hygienic accommodation and care, which allows the animals to perform a wide range of species-typical behaviour and exercise a degree of choice and control in their environment (e.g. to choose to socialise with, or avoid, group mates). The amount and quality of space provided, and the flexibility of the enclosure, are essential considerations. Other factors that should be taken into account include ease of cleaning, capture and monitoring of the animals.

Components of a good primate housing system

The components of a good primate housing system are listed below. Most are applicable to all species, although the detail of how to interpret and apply each component may vary. Advice from a specialist in primate behaviour and welfare will help to interpret the requirements for individual species. It is also necessary to take into account the procedures that animals undergo and any requirements imposed by them (e.g. surgically-prepared animals may need an area in the home enclosure where they can recover from anaesthesia yet retain visual and olfactory contact with the rest of the social group). 

  • Housing in stable, compatible groups (pairs at least).
  • Adequate socialisation and habituation to humans, and training for cooperation with husbandry and procedures, where appropriate.
  • Sufficient space to provide for exercise, a range of species-typical behaviours, structural division of the enclosure, and suitable environmental enrichment.
  • A solid floor as a resting area and to allow provision of substrate for foraging.
  • Sufficient enclosure height to allow vertical flight if alarmed; no small double-tier cages since these limit upward movement and therefore can be stressful for the animals. Evidence suggests the lower levels can be dark and the animals may receive less attention from staff.
  • Structures to enable utilisation of as much of the enclosure as possible (i.e. to increase the useable space for the animals), for example, perches, platforms, swings, ropes, ladders; sufficient for all animals to occupy without competition
  • Visual barriers to allows animals to control their social interactions
  • Nest areas for species that use them (e.g. wooden nest boxes and plastic hanging buckets for marmosets and tamarins)
  • A varied diet appropriate for the species
  • The ability to forage, including appropriate artificial feeding devices and scatter feeding
  • Appropriate wood (i.e. no chemical preservatives or long strips that can block the gut) for species that gnaw (e.g. marmosets) and for scent-marking
  • Toys, chews, tactile materials and destructible materials (e.g. cardboard boxes) to provide a degree of control over the environment.
  • Adequate light levels and appropriate spectral emission for species' needs.
  • A flexible enclosure/furniture layout to allow stress-free capture.
  • Provision to facilitate positive reinforcement training in groups (e.g. seprate areas in front of the cage where dominant and subordinate animals can be trained simultaneously).
  • A degree of novelty (e.g. minor changes in furniture, feeding practices, toys).
  • Access to outdoors wherever possible.

Enrichment strategies

Further examples of enrichment strategies are given on the NC3Rs Macaque Website and Common Marmoset Care.

Cynomolgus macaques diving into a swimming pool from NC3Rs on Vimeo.

Swimming pools provide effective enrichment for macaques in the laboratory. These animals show high motivation to manipulate the water surface, immerse themselves, dive, swim and play (including underwater), even in the absence of submerged food rewards (e.g. raisins, nuts, banana chips). Advantages of this enrichment technique are that it is based on a natural behavioural inclination, encourages play rather than food-orientated enrichment, provides exercise, keeps both animals and their enclosure clean, and can facilitate thermoregulation in hot weather (BFC Israel Ltd.)

Cynomolgus macaques swimming pools from NC3Rs on Vimeo.

Stock and experimental macaques at this laboratory are group-housed and given access to the custom-made polypropylene pools about once per week to maintain some novelty. The macaques can be seen swimming, dive-bombing and wrestling. 

Marmosets in roof top runs from NC3Rs on Vimeo.

Outdoor runs for stock and breeding marmosets located on the roof of a laboratory. The outdoor runs are constructed of wood and mesh, and enriched with Astroturf, non-toxic shrubs and browse, and flexible perches. Marmosets can be seen investigating blossom on the shrubs, scent-marking and leaping.

Two tier enclosure for long-tailed macaques from NC3Rs on Vimeo.

Weaned long-tailed macaques at BFC Israel Ltd. in a two-tier enclosure designed to provide extensive visual barriers and thereby minimise aggression within the social group. The enclosure contains wooden fixed perches and a variety of moveable swings.

Related resources

The Macaque Website An information-rich, highly visual and referenced resource on macaque behaviour, care and welfare, developed by the NC3Rs A comprehensive, online resource on marmoset behaviour and care, partly funded by the NC3Rs

Environmental Enrichment and Refinement of Husbandry for Nonhuman Primates Animal Welfare Institute Database

Non-human primate accommodation, care and use (2017) Guidelines adopted as a condition of funding by the major UK funders of bioscience research using non-human primates.

BPRC's Enrichment Manual for Macaques and Marmosets Vernes MK, Louwerse AL, Eds. (2010) 

Enrichment for Nonhuman Primates NIH Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (2005) 

Comfortable Quarters for Nonhuman Primates in Research Institutions Reinhardt V (2002) 

The Welfare of Non-Human Primates Used in Research Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Welfare (2002) 

The Psychological Well-being of Nonhuman Primates National Research Council (1998)


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