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Kornhauser Health Sciences Library

Animal Research: Why search for alternatives?

This guide provides users with information on best practices for literature searches conducted for animal research.

About Animal Alternatives

According to AWA Policy #12, alternatives or alternative methods are those that incorporate some aspect of replacement, reduction, or refinement of animal use. Generally speaking, it is the investigators duty to look for options that would minimize the pain and distress to the animal, reduce the number of animals needed to obtain accurate results, or suggest an alternative less sentient species as a replacement (for example using insects instead of mammals).

Federal regulations require investigators to demonstrate that they have made an effort to identify possible alternatives to the use of animal subjects and have attempted to identify methods that would minimize pain and stress to the animals. Additionally, preliminary research is needed to ensure that the proposed research procedures have not been attempted before, thus avoiding unnecessary duplication of research and use of animals.

These alternatives are found by doing a comprehensive literature search and reporting findings in the protocol that is presented to the IACUC. 

The 3 R's


Replacement means using non-sentient models instead of living animals as research subjects.  Examples are computer models, plants, and in vitro cell cultures from tissues.  Some interpretations of this principle go further to suggest “higher” species should be replaced with “lower” species on the phylogenetic scale (e.g. using mice rather than primates, or annelids instead of mice). 


Reduction is the idea of using the fewest number of animal subjects needed to produce statistically significant  scientific results.  Reducing animal use overall leads to less animal pain and distress.  Providing evidence that the proposed research is not unnecessarily duplicative also speaks to this principle, as performing already-proven studies with animals increases the number of animals used overall.


Refinement means modifying the experimental techniques so that those techniques cause less pain or distress, or no pain or distress, to the animals.  To refine one’s techniques, one must investigate what other options – or alternatives – exist that could be applied to one’s own research.  Potential options may or may not be identified, but any that exist may or may not compatible with the goals of the study.  Evidence of all of these considerations must be documented.