Animals in Teaching and Research at Cornell University

Cornell University regards the study of animals in teaching and research as essential to continued progress in science, medicine, agriculture, and education. When animal use is necessary, we maintain the highest ethical standards for their use and care.

Advancing Human and Animal Health through the Safe, Humane, and Judicious Use of Animals

Cornell University regards the study of animals in teaching and research as essential to continued progress in science, medicine, agriculture, and education. When animal use is necessary, we maintain the highest ethical standards for their use and care.

Studies with animals conducted at Cornell University focus on agriculture, environmental sciences, biomedical engineering, veterinary medicine, life sciences, and psychology, including basic biology and behavior. The knowledge that scientists gain from studies involving research animals contributes to improving and saving the lives of humans and animals and brings advances in the diagnosis and treatment of major diseases and disorders — from cancer, heart disease, and diabetes to birth defects and neurological disorders. Cornell scientists do not conduct cosmetics testing.

Cornell scientists recognize the seriousness of using animals in pursuit of scientific discovery. Researchers carefully consider all alternatives, but the current state of basic biological knowledge often still requires scientists to rely on living systems for credible results. The vast majority of research animals are bred solely for this purpose.

The health and behavioral well-being of animals used in teaching and research is guaranteed by an interlocking set of state and federal laws and guidelines to which Cornell complies. In addition, Cornell meets the strict standards required to maintain accreditation of its animal care and use program. Cornell University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) — on which two members not affiliated with the university are drawn from the Ithaca community — reviews, approves, and monitors animal teaching and research to ensure compliance with these regulations. Cornell’s Office of Research Integrity and Assurance (ORIA) provides further oversight of Cornell’s compliance with university policies and external regulations.

Cornell’s staff of veterinarians, technologists, facilities management, and husbandry, all part of the Center for Animal Resources and Education (CARE) at Cornell University, are specially trained to provide the clinical care, enrichment, and housing that assures the health and well-being of animals. They also assist Cornell scientists in meeting their legal and ethical responsibility for providing the most humane care possible. The Cornell staff has a passion for caring for animals and a professional and personal commitment to ensuring that Cornell’s animals receive high quality compassionate care.

Center for Animal Resources and Education (CARE) at Cornell University

The Center for Animal Resources and Education (CARE) at Cornell University is part of the Vice President for Research and Innovation office. Headed by the official university veterinarian — the attending veterinarian — CARE is a group of veterinarians, veterinary technologists, facility managers, and support staff responsible for the welfare of animals used in teaching and research at Cornell. The director of CARE is board certified by the American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine (ACLAM) — a specialty recognized by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). This certification indicates the completion of specialized training in the care and use of animals in teaching and science. In addition to the director, all CARE staff veterinarians are board-certified by the American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine (ACLAM) as well. Other staff have various degrees and professional certifications, and all have received extensive training and experience in the field.

Promoting Human and Animal Health through Animal Research

Advancing the health and welfare of people and animals is central to the mission of Cornell’s research. Only a small portion of Cornell research involves animals. Such research is part of a range of approaches necessary to make progress in medical treatments and techniques for humans — and animals. The study of animals has led, in part, to advances in medical diagnosis, treatment, cures, and devices that have saved and improved millions of human lives worldwide.

These advances include chemotherapy, insulin, organ transplants, bypass surgery, modern prosthetic limbs, immunizations, and drugs to treat or moderate the effects of diseases, such as HIV, Alzheimer’s, high blood pressure, and malaria.

Examples of current studies at Cornell involve zebra fish and mice: Zebra fish make it possible for scientists to image and monitor single synaptic connections and neurons in the living brain. Current studies focus on control of movement and the question of why sleep is fundamental not only to human life but to every animal with a nervous system. How can a tiny fish shed such light on these complex subjects? Zebra fish eggs and larvae are transparent, so their development, including the brain, can be monitored regularly and non-invasively in the live fish, using fluorescent imaging techniques.

A new model for studying ovarian cancer, the fifth leading cause of death in women, is being developed by investigating the disease in mice — how healthy stem cells in the female reproductive system and other locations become cancerous. The studies look at how the cells are formed, where they come from, which are more susceptible to transformation, and why. Scientists compare the behavior of the disease in mice to what happens in human cells. They have also been able to develop organoids, which are organ-like structures created to replicate what happens in a living organism. These organoids are an example of a non-whole animal tool developed to study certain aspects of disease, thus reducing animal use.

Cornell researchers also study many diseases affecting animals such, as Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP), gastro-intestinal corona viruses, and a number of parasites, including lung worms and hemophilia in dogs, so individuals and veterinarians can provide better care for animals.

Assuring Humane Care

Institutions using animals for teaching and research must establish and maintain standards and safeguards to protect the health and well-being of the animals. Institutions failing to do so will risk losing federal, state, and private research grants. Beyond regulations and proscriptions detailed in federal laws and policies such as the Animal Welfare Act and the Public Health Service Policy on Human Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, Cornell is committed to treating animal teaching and research subjects with care and dignity. Cornell has a stringent set of closely monitored policies and practices to that end.

Cornell requires scientists who conduct animal research to adhere to standards and practices delineated in the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals published by the National Research Council. The Guide, written by a collaboration of research scientists, veterinarians, and laypersons representing the public’s interest in animal welfare, includes dos and don’ts of veterinary care (surgery, analgesics, anesthesia, and euthanasia methods), housing conditions (food, water, sanitization, temperature, humidity, lighting, and drainage), and a physical environment that promotes psychological wellbeing (exercise, enrichment of the enclosure, and companionship). Similarly, the care of agricultural animals is detailed in the Guide for the Care and Use of Agricultural Animals in Research and Teaching published by the Federation of Animal Science Societies.

Inspectors from the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) conduct announced and unannounced inspections at least once a year to assure compliance.

Cornell also voluntarily participates in a rigorous peer review evaluation conducted by AAALAC International, an independent non-profit organization that is dedicated to enhancing the quality of research, teaching, and testing by promoting humane, responsible animal care and use around the world. Every three years AAALAC site visitors review each area where animals are housed or used at Cornell as well as all related records. In its latest reevaluation, in June 2021, AAALAC reaccredited Cornell’s program of animal care and use.

Protocols for Animal Use

Before any animals can be acquired for use in teaching and research at Cornell, the lead researcher (principal investigator) must submit a detailed scientific justification and description of their use and care as part of a formal protocol review to the Cornell University IACUC.

This protocol describes all animal work from the outset of a proposed experiment to its conclusion. An important part of the review is implementation of the “3 Rs”: REPLACE the use of animals with alternatives when possible; REDUCE the number of animals used to a minimum by obtaining information from fewer animals or more information from the same number of animals; and REFINE the way procedures are carried out and animals are housed, for example to minimize pain and/or improve animal welfare.

The protocol must be approved by the IACUC before work with animals can begin and is required by peer-reviewed professional journals for publication of research results.

The IACUC ensures that personnel conducting procedures on animals are appropriately qualified and trained. All individuals named on a protocol must undergo training before they can use animals. The core training includes ethical principles and requirements for practicing humane care. Individuals also undergo additional species- and procedure-specific training provided by the CARE veterinary staff. Translational Training Tools™ (3Ts) was developed at Cornell to teach and encourage the practice of non-surgical and surgical procedures on handcrafted inanimate objects rather than on live animals and prior to conducting procedures on live animals.

All Cornell faculty members, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, undergraduates, and research personnel involved in the care and use of animals in teaching and research as well as department heads where such work takes place are required to familiarize themselves with and to follow Cornell Policy 1.4 Care and Use of Live Vertebrate Animals in Research and Teaching.

The IACUC oversees Cornell University’s animal program, facilities, and procedures. Its members include the attending veterinarian, Cornell’s biosafety officer, animal facility managers, faculty members, and individuals from the community with no affiliation with Cornell University. In addition to the review and approval of all animal use protocols, the IACUC conducts semi-annual inspections of all spaces where animals are housed or used. The IACUC has the authority to stop an experiment at any time if the health and welfare of an animal may be at risk.

Veterinarians and veterinary technicians from CARE visit animal facilities daily. CARE veterinarians have specialized training and experience in the clinical care of animals used in science and teaching. They advise researchers on the most humane way to practice analgesia, anesthesia, and surgery. They are available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week as needed, to examine and treat animals when necessary. As an added safeguard, animal husbandry technicians, who care for the animals every day, are trained by CARE veterinarians to spot any signs of injury, ill health, or abnormal behavior and to alert a member of the CARE veterinary staff immediately if they notice any irregularity.

ORIA provides oversight of Cornell’s research programs to ensure that they are compliant with applicable university policy and regulatory requirements. ORIA staff educate the research community regarding research integrity and university and government requirements for conducting research at Cornell. They provide services such as ethics refresher training, protocol review to ensure congruency with the humane treatment standards set forth in Cornell policy and regulations, and post-approval quality assurance reviews — to educate researchers about requirements and best practices and to proactively mitigate potential compliance risks.

Cornell provides means to anonymously report concerns about animal care and use and instances of suspected non-compliance with laws and regulations and protects its facility employees, committee members, researchers, and laboratory personnel from retaliation from good-faith reports of concerns.

Which Species?

Rodents (mice and rats) account for the majority of animals used for teaching and research. Other species may include guinea pigs, rabbits, nontraditional rodents (e.g. voles and giant African pouched rats), cats, dogs, swine, dairy and beef cattle, sheep, horses, poultry, and various aquatic, amphibian and avian species.

The Versatile Mouse and Zebra Fish

Small, easy to care for, and a prolific breeder, the mouse is a versatile research subject. For example, mice become elderly in one to two years, making them perfect for studies on the aging process. Further, transgenic mice (those with a non-native gene) offer unprecedented insights into ways that individual genes function. Scientists can turn off specific genes or parts of genes (in what they call a knock-out mouse) or enhance the function of a gene (in a knock-in mouse), then watch for changes.

In the field of cancer, Cornell scientists are using such mice to study blood and lung cancers, a leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. One aspect of this research is to study whether manipulating certain genes can halt lung cancer progression and sensitize lung cancer to chemotherapy. Some studies involving transgenic mice focused on diseases such as tuberculosis and the influenza virus. Others investigate cognitive processes such as social recognition and memory. Additional studies attempt to broaden basic understanding of metabolic processes such as the secretion of insulin and the processing of vitamins and nutrients, while other research aims to perfect tests that can safeguard the public from tainted food and drinking water.

Why are mice so valued as laboratory animals? Scientists theorize that shortly before dinosaurs became extinct about 75 million years ago, mice, rats, and humans inherited genes from a common mammalian ancestor. Around 90 percent of the estimated 25,000 to 30,000 genes in a rodent have counterparts in humans, making rodents ideal models for studying human disorders. Researchers know that Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis attack neurons, cells that communicate between the body and the brain, but they don’t know why. Different genetic strains of mice vary in their sensitivity to these diseases, so the role of genetics in these diseases can be studied. Biomedical engineers utilize mouse model systems to study aging-related declines in organ healing, including skeletal muscle, liver, and blood-producing tissues. Advances in studying mice have provided an alternative to using other species for many disease models.

As an alternative to the use of mammalian species, zebra fish provide many cell biological and development processes similar to those in mammals and are, therefore, replacing the use of mammals at a growing pace. Zebra fish embryos and larvae are completely transparent, so it is easy to observe and monitor their development with non-invasive techniques. New methods of introducing genetic material and manipulating the genome—when combined with the ability to easily observe the results—have allowed researchers to create models for multiple types of cancer, muscular dystrophy, tissue regeneration, and many other human diseases and treatments. The increasing use of the zebra fish demonstrates researchers’ attempts to step away from many traditional mammalian species, while continuing to push the boundaries of our scientific knowledge.

How Many Animals? As Few As Possible

When animals are involved, every effort is made to keep their numbers as low as possible without jeopardizing scientific validity. In order to conduct an animal study, the investigator must first show that animals are absolutely necessary and that there are no alternatives for obtaining the relevant information. They must provide scientific justification for the number of animals needed for a study. The IACUC ultimately decides if the justification is sound and the number of animals necessary for a study. When research involves animals, valid and reliable results depend on superior animal care, which incurs an expense, a further factor in ensuring diligence in keeping animals numbers as low as possible.

Frequently Asked Questions About Animal Studies at Cornell University

Q: Why can’t computer models replace animals in teaching and researching?
A: Computer models, use of in vitro (test tube, petri dish, etc.) methods, and virtual reality devices are some of the approaches used whenever possible as alternatives to studying live animals. Computer models can be built using what is already known about biological processes, however, living organisms are far more complex than any model available today. The activity of many thousands of proteins or the interaction between the circulatory system, liver, brain, and nervous system, for example, needs to be thoroughly understood before a computer simulation can be built. Although use of alternatives complements the study of animals, and reduces the numbers used, the only way scientists can fully study a disease and treatment is in a living organism.

Q: Are lost or stolen pets used as laboratory animals?
A: No. All animals used in teaching and research are acquired legally, following detailed regulations. With the exception of a small number of donated (usually agricultural animals such as horses) and wild-caught animals, all of the research and teaching animals are bred solely for that purpose and acquired through licensed vendors.

Q: What types of animals are commonly used?
A: Mice are, by far, the most commonly used animals.

Q: Don’t most laboratory animals live a life of pain and suffering?
A: No. The use of animals in teaching and research is highly regulated, particularly with regards to pain alleviation. Most animals never undergo painful procedures. For the few procedures that do involve discomfort or pain, appropriate pain medications are administered. There are rare cases where the nature of a study makes it impossible for momentary pain or discomfort to be completely avoided, for example, just as with humans, the level of pain and discomfort from a disease or following surgery is kept as low and short as possible, although cannot always be eliminated.

Q: What happens to the animals when experiments are completed?
A: All transgenic animals (those to whom a non-native gene has been introduced) are humanely euthanized. Other animals may also be humanely euthanized as part of the research to examine tissue, for example. Dairy cows involved in nutrition studies, or horses used for teaching demonstrations are returned to the dairy herd or put back in pasture. Most of the few dogs and cats are adopted, after spay or neutering.

Q: Does anyone profit from the use of research animals at Cornell University?
A: As an education and research institution, Cornell’s mission is to share the results of its research for the public good. Cornell licenses its patented discoveries to businesses for commercial development and distribution or to nonprofit agencies and philanthropic foundations that assist Cornell in disseminating the invention for the greatest good. Proceeds, if any, go to the inventor, the university, and the relevant college under an established formula. Revenue from the licensing of intellectual property arising from animal research is modest and is generally used to fund further research.

Organizations That Safeguard the Welfare of Animals in Teaching and Research

Below is a list of organizations that are concerned with the humane care of animals: