Careful consideration of environmental enrichment is key for improving the welfare of laboratory animals. Image credit: University College London.
What is environmental enrichment?
The term environmental enrichment can refer to any objects or general practices that enhance the level of physical, mental or social stimulation for captive animals. Good environmental enrichment improves the quality of life for animals by enabling them to carry out natural (species-typical) and desirable behaviours, providing cognitive challenges and opportunities to make choices and have a degree of control over the environment.
A more stimulating environment can be achieved through adapting cage size, design or contents. Equally as important is considering the quality and quantity of social stimulation, with an understanding that, for some species, social enrichment can come from both other animals and human handlers.
Why do we need to evaluate environmental enrichment?
Environmental enrichment needs to be suitable for the species, strain and individuals in question. Unsuitable enrichment items can, at best, go unused or, at worst, cause direct harm to the animals involved (e.g. by causing injury or increasing aggression). Conversely, enrichment that meets the needs of research animals can reduce their stress levels and make them calmer and easier to handle, ultimately improving data quality and benefiting the science. Many new enrichment products reach the market without any prior evaluation of their success in improving animal welfare.
Taking a science-based approach to evaluating enrichment items will allow you to demonstrate their suitability and effectiveness for the animals in your care. Many animal technicians will have a feeling of what kinds of enrichment might be appropriate and effective, but it is in the best interests of the animals and the facility management to back this up with robust data from repeated observations. Enrichment can be time consuming to provide; therefore, it is important for technicians to know that their limited time is not wasted on ineffective enrichment.
Barriers to evaluating environmental enrichment
Most animal technicians appreciate the importance of providing a high quality environment for their animals, but may encounter barriers that prevent them from evaluating enrichment using a scientific approach, some of which are discussed in an NC3Rs blog post. This resource has been designed with these constraints in mind, including a designated section addressing common concerns and FAQs.