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Frequently asked questions

The following list contains answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs). We would like to use the page to answer your questions concerning animal research. Many of the questions are general questions and the answers therefore apply to a variety of animal experiments. In these texts you will obviously find many answers that have particular relevance to the situation at the German Primate Center (DPZ), as scientists clarify research questions on and about primates.

Click on one of the questions on the right hand side to go to the answer.

Why are animal experiments necessary?

There are primarily three reasons for scientific animal research: Animal experiments are necessary for the preparation of medical advances that lead to new and improved medication, treatment techniques for surgery or devices such as prosthetics (animal experiments in human and veterinary medicine). They increase the health safety of humans, animals and our environment, since they are needed to test for harmful products (recognition of environmental hazards). Thirdly, such trials increase insights into questions on life sciences, which can be used for future medical and technical advances (animal experiments in basic research for knowledge gain).

Neuroscientific results such as those obtained at the DPZ are applied in medical robotics. Neuroscience is also one of the three main focuses of the German Primate Center. In addition to finding out how the brain functions, scientists use nonhuman primates to investigate infectious diseases such as HIV, influenza or hepatitis.

DPZ's neuroscientific research results includes the development of medical robotics (neuroprosthetics). On the photo is a robotic arm that should help paralyzed patients to replace their hand function. Photo: Steuer
DPZ's neuroscientific research results includes the development of medical robotics (neuroprosthetics). On the photo is a robotic arm that should help paralyzed patients to replace their hand function. Photo: Steuer

What is the definition of an animal experiment?

The definition of an animal experiment in Germany is stipulated in the German Animal Protection Act. In paragraph 7 it states that:

"According to this Act, animal experiments are interventions or treatments for experimental purposes

  1. on animals when it could be associated with pain, suffering or harm to these animals
  2. on animals where it could lead to the birth or hatching of animals connected with suffering, pain or harm, or
  3. on the genetic make-up of animals, if they could be associated with pain, harm or injury to the genetically modified animals or their carriers.

Animal experiments also include interventions or treatment not intended for research purposes and

  1. used for the production, extraction, storage or reproduction of substances, products or organisms,
  2. through the organs or tissues, in whole or in part, for scientific purposes a) to transplant the organs or tissue, b) preparing cultures c) isolated organs, tissues or cells, or
  3. carried out for training, further education or advance training purposes”

Are experiments with animals necessary?

Many animal experiments are necessary and indispensable. This is also explicitly stated in the animal welfare report of the federal government: "According to current scientific development and despite the increased use of alternative methods, we cannot completely abstain from using animal experiments“ (Animal Protection Report of the Federal Government 2015, p. 40). Results can only be gained when dealing with the complicated mechanisms in the biological cycle of an organism, they are indispensable.

In order to for example test antihypertensive drugs, an active blood circulation is needed. Many medical therapies that prolong life and fight serious diseases were made possible because of experiments with animals. Antibiotics, organs, or antihypertensive drugs are examples of medical achievements that have saved thousands of lives and that would have been impossible without animal experiments.

Are animal experiments regulated by law?

For decades now, animal experiments have been regulated by law in Germany. The first animal welfare law was enacted in 1972; in the summer of 2013 an amendment to the law required by a change in EU legislation was implemented. Germany has one of the strictest animal welfare laws in the world. There is no other country in the EU that integrated animal welfare into its constitution - in Germany animal welfare was made a national objective in 2002 (Constitution, article 20a). Apart from Germany, only Switzerland has a constitution that includes animal welfare.

Every research project that includes animal experiments with vertebrates must be approved by the authorities and can only be carried out if it shows an important scientific or medical benefit for humans. A commission for animal experiments, that also includes representatives of animal welfare organizations, is supported by the relevant state authority that authorizes animal experiments. Animal tests for the development of weapons, cosmetics, detergents and tobacco products are prohibited in Germany.

In close cooperation with the scientists, the animal keepers of the DPZ ensure that the test animals are well cared for and suffer as little as possible. Photot: Steuer
In close cooperation with the scientists, the animal keepers of the DPZ ensure that the test animals are well cared for and suffer as little as possible. Photot: Steuer

Who uses animals for experiments?

All of those actively involved in animal experiments, be it at the German Primate Center or elsewhere in Germany, have the appropriate qualifications. Various scientists use animal experiments for research purposes: physicians, veterinarians, biologists or neuroscientists. Well-trained animal keepers, who ensure that the animals are burdened as little as possible during the experiments, assist the scientists. The research projects are carried out under the supervision of independent official veterinarians and in officially approved buildings where the animals are accommodated in accordance with their needs.

What guarantee can be given to ensure that the animals suffer as little as possible?

The German Primate Center attaches great importance to species-appropriate husbandry and regular medical checks to ensure the animals' welfare at all times. Animal keepers and scientists ensure that our animals suffer as little as possible. There are good reasons for this: On the one hand, scientists are not animal abusers but responsible people who want to treat their fellow creatures as well as possible. On the other hand, in order to achieve exact research results, researchers must work with animals that are healthy, stress-free and those that fulfill the associated requirements. Lastly, there are the legal provisions that stipulate the proper forms of animal keeping. It is prescribed that animals that undergo procedures that could cause pain, must be anesthetized if and only if the anesthesia do not cause more stress than the surgery itself.

At the DPZ, the animal protection officer Prof. Rabea Hinkel ensures that the valid rules and regulations are followed and that the animals are well taken care of. At the same time, an independent veterinarian who regularly monitors the living conditions of the animals is responsible for the DPZ.

Where do the laboratory animals at DPZ come from?

All non-human primates used for animal experiments at the DPZ were also bred for this purpose. The animals originate predominantly from the primate husbandry at DPZ, occasionally also from other breeding facilities in Europe or their countries of origin.

Since all primate species kept at the DPZ are social animals, they are kept in groups. This applies to the breeding animals and to a large degree, also to the laboratory animals as far as compatible with the scientific study. If an animal is taken from a breeding group and transferred to a laboratory animal facility, attention is paid to ensure that social structures of the groups are not impaired. For this reason, mainly young adult animals are used for experiments after they have reached sexual maturity, because they would naturally leave their birth group at this time. Animals that are not used in experiments spend their whole life in their breeding groups. During the public guided tours at the DPZ there is the opportunity to see the breeding groups in the outdoor enclosures.

Animals used for experimental purposes must (with rare exceptions) also be bred for this purpose according to the law. A traceability of two previous generations, which were also bred in captivity, must always be given and verifiable (Tierschutz-Versuchstierverordnung (TierSchVersV) §24). 

In Germany and the entire EU it is prohibited to use wild-caught primates for animal research.

Read more about the strict requirements for keeping and breeding primates in research here.

A rhesus macaque at the DPZ primate breeding facility. The animals used for research purposes at the DPZ and other public research facilities in Germany largely originate from the German Primate Center breeding facility. Photo: Säckl
A rhesus macaque at the DPZ primate breeding facility. The animals used for research purposes at the DPZ and other public research facilities in Germany largely originate from the German Primate Center breeding facility. Photo: Säckl

When laboratory animals are euthanised at the DPZ?

No animals are euthanized at the DPZ without a justifiable cause. This would be a violation of the German Animal Welfare Act and is contrary to our ethical obligation to responsibly treat the animals in our care.

Before animals would be used in an experiment, an application for an animal experiment must be submitted and approved by the Lower Saxony State Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety (LAVES). Even before the start of the animal experiment, termination criteria must be defined in the application that lead to the termination or interruption of the use of an animal ("human endpoints"). Such an interruption or discontinuation criterion is, for example, when the ethically justifiable maximum total severity as defined in the application has been reached. To determine the stress level of the animals, a severity assessment is carried out. For this purpose, so-called score sheets are used, among other things. These are evaluation sheets that help to quantify the stress level on the basis of certain criteria. For example, changes or conspicuous features in the appearance, behavior, weight or food intake of the animals are assessed, which allow conclusions to be drawn about their well-being: Options for stress assessment in animal experiments (page 30 ff.; only in German)

If a certain score is reached for an animal, which was previously defined as a termination criterion, the test must be immediately interrupted for this animal. If the interruption of the test and therapy is not expected to result in a reduction in distress or if interruption is not possible, the animal must be removed from the experiment. If the distress is too great and not reversible (according to the score and veterinary evaluation), the animal shall be euthanized immediately to prevent unnecessary suffering.

In some experiments, euthanasia and a professional pathological examination of the animals is necessary in the context of the scientific question of the experiment. In this case, the euthanasia of the animals is part of the animal experiment application and is approved by the authorities before the experiments begin.

Animals may be euthanized outside of an experiment if tissues or organs are required for scientific purposes. This case of "reasonable cause" is regulated by paragraphs §1, §4 and §7 of the Animal Protection Act. The manner in which animals are to be killed is listed in detail in the German Animal Welfare Regulations on Laboratory Animals (Tierschutz-Versuchstierverordnung; only in German) in section 2 with the Appendix 2 to §2 section 2 for the respective animal species.

How are non-human primates euthanized?

Euthanasia of laboratory animals, is regulated in Appendix 2 of the German Animal Welfare Regulations on Laboratory Animals (Tierschutz-Versuchstierverordnung; only in German). Depending on the animal species, only certain methods may be used. The method that causes the least distress to the animal must always be chosen, as far as this is compatible with the purpose of the experiment.

Non-human primates may only be euthanised by the injection of an overdosed anesthetic under deep anesthesia. This procedure is similar to the euthanasia of pets by a veterinarian and is painless for the animals.

What happens to laboratory animals that are in good veterinary condition after an animal experiment?

Animals that are in good health after an animal experiment are transferred to animal husbandry after a final veterinary examination. In the husbandry they are cared for. They may be transferred to another experiment at a later date. The reuse in a further animal experiment is regulated in the German Animal Welfare Regulations on Laboratory Animals (Tierschutz-Versuchstierverordnung; only in German) and must be approved by the competent authority.

When does an animal be reused for another animal experiment?

The reuse of laboratory animals (cephalopods and vertebrates) is regulated by §18 of the German Animal Welfare Regulations on Laboratory Animals (Tierschutz-Versuchstierverordnung; only in German). In general, reuse is only allowed after approval by the Lower Saxony State Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety (LAVES). This decision is made for the individual animal, because it takes into account the medical and, if necessary, experimental history of the animal.

Can results of animal experiments be used for humans?

Humans and mammals, especially non-human primates, are very similar in their anatomy and body functions. Many vital organs such as the heart, liver, kidneys or lungs function according to the same principles. Numerous human diseases can also occur in animals such as pig or bird flu, BSE or HIV.

Many results from animal experiments can therefore be transferred to humans. Especially when it comes to the mode of action of drugs in the human body, animal experiments can provide important conclusions. In doing so, it is important to select the animal model that is best suited to the particular question. Although a 100 percent prediction of how a new drug is absorbed in the human body is not possible. Animal experiments, however, help to calculate and exclude basic risks to human health and thus contribute significantly to new findings in biomedical research.

The German research community, for example, has concluded on the basis of empirical studies that about 70 percent of the undesirable effects of drugs in humans were correctly predicted in animal experiments. Many of these active substances (about 36 percent) are subsequently taken out of the development process and are no longer tested in humans because they present safety risks (DFG brochure "Animal experiments in research", p. 36) The transferability of the results from animal experiments also applies vice versa: drugs that work for humans can therefore also be used for pets or livestock.

What are the 3 Rs?

The 3R principle was developed by the scientists William Russel and Rex Burch and was first published in their book "The Principles of Human Experimental Technique" in 1959. With the use of three methods - replacement, refinement and reduction - their aim was to reduce the suffering of animals in experiments.

The term "replacement" refers to measures that lead to the replacement of animal experiments (through experiments on cell cultures and/or with the use of computer simulations). Refinement is a series of attempts to minimize the suffering of the animals with the application of improved methods. An example of this form of refinement is that animals can only be operated on, if they are anesthetized. Reduction indicates the minimization of animal experiments through a clever experimental design and with scientific coordination to ensure that no similar experiments are repeated.

Various institutions that promote research, now link the allocation of funding to the orientation of research based on the 3R principle. DPZ Scientists, who work on experiments with primates, commit themselves in an ethics agreement to abide by the 3R principles.

Are there alternatives to animal experiments?

There are only partial alternatives to animal experiments. It is currently scientifically impossible to replace all animal experiments with alternative methods and this is expected to remain as such in the near future. Success has already been achieved in certain areas where experiments with rats or mice have become superfluous – this includes the production of skin from stem cells. Computer simulations can also serve as a supplement for the results of animal experiments. In addition, new scientific imaging techniques enable us to for example create images of the brain without harming the animals. The new imaging center at the DPZ will allow our scientists to gain insights into the activity of a monkey’s brain without surgical intervention.

Scientists are intensively working on the development of several methods to substitute animal experiments: Firstly, to reduce animal suffering, secondly, to ensure more reliable scientific results and thirdly, to reduce costs caused by the elaborate species-appropriate housing of many experimental animals. German scientists may not perform animal experiments that can be replaced with alternative methods or produce results already achieved by other researchers. In Germany, the "Centre for Documentation and Evaluation of Alternative Methods to Animal Experiments" (ZEBET, founded in 1989) maintains a database of alternative methods for animal experiments. The center also examines alternative test methods for their relevance and reproduction (this process is also known as validation) and provides funding for alternative research methods.

Currently alternative methods cannot completely replace animal experiments. The photo shows a nutrient solution in a DPZ laboratory. Photo: Kiel
Currently alternative methods cannot completely replace animal experiments. The photo shows a nutrient solution in a DPZ laboratory. Photo: Kiel

Is basic research important for medical progress?

At the DPZ, the scientists are working on basic research. The knowledge they create does not serve directly medical or other fields of application, but is intended to enrich the basic understanding of humanity through life-scientific questions. This means that the scientists mainly answer questions about how and why. For example, one must first understand how a virus spreads in the body and how the immune system works to make a cure or vaccine against it. Only if you know how the brain controls movements, it is possible to develop neuroprostheses, which help patients with paraplegia. The scientists at the DPZ work on this topics and are laying the basis for future applications with their findings.

However, this separation cannot be sustained in practice: While it takes sometimes a long time for findings from basic research to be useful in the application (20 years is not an unlikely period), there are always examples of this. Basic research creates knowledge that the researchers hope to apply practically in the future - but there is no guarantee and no one is able to predict the developments of mankind within the next ten or 20 years and whether certain basic research will be needed.

Nevertheless, any further research bases on fundamental research. Knowledge gained in the animal experiment can help to understand certain processes in the living organism better due to the fundamental similarities between humans and animals. Without the knowledge gained in basic research, scientific and medical breakthroughs are unthinkable.

You can find more about the importance of basic research and examples of important research successes here.

What is the opinion of the general public on animal experiments?

On this issue, the European Union has repeatedly produced independent and representative surveys in all the EU Member States over the last 10 years. The results were consistent with all studies: the majority of the respondents were in favor of animal research.

In the most recent survey in 2010, 44 percent of the respondents answered “yes” to the question "Should scientists be allowed to experiment with animals if they solve human health problems?". 37 percent were against it and the rest were undecided. Of the respondents who were interested in science, 48% said yes and of those who thought they were well informed on scientific progress, 47% answered yes to research with animals. These figures are specifically related to experiments with highly developed animals such as monkeys and dogs. Even higher approval rates have been found for research with rodents such as mice (66 percent).

Are there medical successes based on research with primates?

There are many medical successes based on experiments with primates. Two examples are: One of the greatest medical successes achieved with primate experiments was the development of a vaccine against the polio virus in the middle of the 20th century. Polio is also known in Germany as "child paralysis". In experiments with rhesus monkeys, the American Jonas Salk identified the three different poliovirus species in the 1940s. Polio caused hundreds of thousands of serious malformations worldwide. He successfully developed a vaccine from cell cultures of the kidney cells of the vervet monkeys, which then came on the market in 1955. With the implementation of primates as infection models, Albert Sabin could improve the vaccine. The vaccine that he developed was close to eradicating polio in the USA by 1965, and internationally the disease was severely restricted.

One of the research results of neurosciences, which helped tens of thousands of patients worldwide, is the deep brain stimulation. It was established in the 1980s and 1990s with the help of experiments with macaques and is sometimes referred to as a "brain pacemaker". It can be used to treat certain forms of Parkinson's disease associated with constant tremors (tremor), as well as symptoms of other disorders such as dystonia or multiple sclerosis. During deep brain stimulation electrodes are directed into the human brain through impulses where they activate cells to stop tremors. Cells are then stimulated and the tremors are suppressed.

These are two prominent examples of the infection and neuroscience research sections that are two of the three pillars of the DPZ. At the DPZ, scientists perform research of future significance.

Are there any successes in veterinary medicine that can be accredited to animal experiments?

Results from animal experiments have led to vast improvements in many areas of veterinary medicine. With the help of animal experiments, the vaccine against the parvovirus was discovered and in so doing, many dogs are saved annually. Cardiac pacemakers developed with the help of animal experiments are nowadays implanted in pets. Researchers have discovered that certain endangered species can physically reproduce and in so doing, help to protect these species from extinction.

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Quiz: Ten questions on animal research

A lab rat. Photo: Understanding Animal Research

Why are animal experiments necessary? Where do the research animals come from and when is it allowed to use animals for experiments? Test your knowledge in our Quiz. Ten questions await you! For some of the question, more than one answer can be correct.

Animal research quiz

Das Bild zeigt Uwe Schönmann
Das Startbild des virtuellen Rundgangs mit Uwe Schönmann. Screenshot: Sylvia Siersleben

The interactive tour guides the visitors to the husbandry and breeding facilities of the DPZ and provides a lot of information about monkey species, hygiene regulations and the daily work of veterinarians, animal caretakers and scientists.

To the tour