Tickling rats with the human hand was developed to mimic the interactions of rat play, and is proposed as an effective and practical approach to positively improve laboratory rat welfare. The standard rat tickling protocol involves finger contact with the nape of the neck before flipping the rat and gently pinning it in a supine position whilst making rapid finger movements on the rats' ventral surface as in human tickling. Research, including our own, has shown that tickled rats often produce 50 kHz ultrasonic vocalisations (USVs) believed to indicate positive affect in rats. However, there is also considerable individual variation in response to the standard tickling protocol. This suggests there is a risk that some rats may perceive tickling as a negative experience depending on how tickling is performed. Based on our research experiences of the standard tickling protocol we have developed a 'playful tickling' protocol intended to mimic more closely the dynamic nature of play. The project aim is to investigate whether playful tickling protocols give rise to more uniform increases in positive affective indicators across individuals relative to the standard tickling protocol. On this basis, we will refine a rat tickling protocol for both males and females validated against indicators of positive affect. We will also test whether this refined tickling protocol reduces variation in the biological consequences of tickling (e.g. behavioural and physiological responses to standard anxiety tests such as the plus maze), which will increase the repeatability of research where tickling is applied either as a standard enrichment or as an experimental treatment. Lastly, we will engage with researchers locally, nationally and internationally through our web-site and stakeholder group to disseminate understanding of the benefits of tickling and to encourage its wider uptake in practice and to gather data on the wider use of tickling in research and as a form of enrichment.
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