Animal experiments in Switzerland

Animal welfare legislation in Switzerland is among the strictest in the world. Animal experiments may only be carried out if no alternatives are available. Strict regulations also apply for the housing of laboratory animals, as they do for the training and continuing education of researchers who work with animals.

1. Switzerland’s strict animal welfare legislation

University research and pharmaceutical research in Switzerland meet the requirements of one of the strictest animal welfare legislations in the world. Every individual animal experiment and every animal-housing facility in Switzerland must be approved by the relevant cantonal veterinary office. Before animal experiments are carried out, every project is first reviewed internally. Then the study documents are forwarded to the cantonal veterinary office responsible for approval. In the application, the researchers must explain why an animal experiment is necessary, what the benefit of the experiment is and to what extent the animals are exposed to stress. The housing conditions for laboratory animals must likewise be presented in the application for approval. The cantonal committee for animal experiments, on which animal welfare representatives also sit, reviews the application, clarifies questions with the researchers and issues a recommendation to accept (possibly with conditions)or reject the application. It is the cantonal veterinary office that eventually issues the approval.

An animal welfare officer and the responsible veterinary authority regularly – in some cases also without prior notification – check that the housing and husbandry requirements for the approved project are met. The scientists, too, have an interest in ensuring the animals are kept under species-appropriate living conditions; for only studies in animals that are optimally treated and looked after and also remain as stress-free as possible under study conditions deliver meaningful results. Every institution that carries out animal experiments must produce an animal report, stating how many animals were actually used, what species were involved, the purpose of the experiments and the severity of stress to which animals were exposed.

2. 3R enshrined in law

In Switzerland, researchers are required to limit animal experiments to a minimum and, whenever possible, to use alternative methods instead of animal models. The 3R are enshrined in law and must be considered in every project. The pharmaceutical industry, researchers, laboratory animal specialists, the federal authorities, animal welfare and politicians have advocated for application of the 3R for more than 30 years. The establishment of the 3R Research Foundation Switzerland in 1987 was a pioneering step. In 2018 it was replaced by the Swiss 3R Competence Centre (3RCC). With the successful promotion of the 3R, it has managed to bring about a decrease in the number of animal experiments from 2 million in 1983 to fewer than 600,000 animals in 2018 and a steady reduction in the stress to which the animals are exposed.

3. Four severity grades

In Switzerland, animal experiments are classified into four stress categories – of so-called severity grades. Severity grade 0 means the animals are not exposed to any stress. Observation studies are an example of this. Almost half of laboratory animals in Switzerland are used in severity grade 0 experiments. Severity grade 1 corresponds to mild stress (e.g. blood sampling)and severity grade 2 to moderate stress (e.g. surgical procedure under anaesthesia). Highly stressful animal experiments (severity grade 3) are only used for serious diseases such as multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis. Experiments of this kind are reduced to a minimum and are only carried out and approved if no alternatives are available. In Switzerland, fewer than 3% of all animal experiments were classified as severity grade 3 in 2018. In these studies, 95% of the animals were mice and rats.

A severity grade is always assigned before the start of the experiment (prospective classification). The researchers must give the highest possible stress that could occur during an experiment. After the study, the experiments are evaluated and each animal is assigned the severity grade that it actually experienced in the experiment (retrospective classification). In the autumn of 2018, the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office (FSVO) published new guidelines for the prospective assignment of severity grade to an animal experiment. In these guidelines, for example, the severity grade for experiments in brain research (neurodegeneration as in Parkinson’s) was raised from 2 to 3.

4. Weighing of benefits against harms as a basic principle

Swiss animal welfare legislation requires the benefits to be weighed against potential harms in every animal experiment. In order to do so, the interests involved and the objectives of all those affected must be established and weighed against each other to determine whether the expected benefit to society is greater than the stress on the animal and the violation of its dignity. The benefit to society may differ widely here (e.g. efficacy of new medicines, toxicity test of a substance, knowledge gain, better housing conditions for animals, etc.). In applied research, the benefit is usually obvious. In basic research, however, it is often difficult to demonstrate a direct benefit. But only if these basics are provided, applied research can ultimately be pursued.