Many scientists are unaware of the complexity of an animal facility, the procedures needed to maintain its function, and the effects of environmental factors on animal studies. When animal research is to take place within a facility, scientists should conduct an inspection, together with the staff who know most about its functions, to assess the suitability for their studies. Such an inspection should include:
- Evaluation of the physical plant and its equipment (e.g. availability of standard laboratory items and consumables), including its suitability for observation, handling, treatment and necropsy of the animals, and facilities for biocontainment
- An assessment of available space for deployment of research equipment, and its fate after the study
- Evaluation of the need for extra power supplies and emergency power sources
- The compatibility of imported equipment with domestic power supplies and networks
- A discussion of waste disposal, particularly if large animals are to be used, the need for decontamination after the study, and methods to achieve this safely
- Evaluation of the competence of available staff and the need for any further education and training prior to the study
- Availability of contingency plans
Recruitment of new scientists should be performed in collaboration with the institution’s animal services director to ensure that their needs are met. Facility evaluation can be a useful part of that process.
Guidelines, such as PREPARE, for planning experiments form one part of systematic quality assurance in animal facilities. An awareness of the necessity for guidelines should pervade all activities. Even species-specific guidelines may have to be adjusted to reflect a novel situation or procedure.
Please note that transparent division of responsibility, labour and costs between the research group and the facility is a vital part of this process. This is discussed in a separate section.
A Code of Practice should be available, so that all facility users understand how the facility is operated. This should be linked to induction in health & safety routines, and documentation. Contingency planning should be an integral part of this process (see below).
Quality assurance of an animal facility may conveniently be addressed at three levels:
1. An overall Plan for management of the research animal facility, including field stations
The Plan should be based upon a systematic and detailed evaluation of all aspects of the facility’s functions. The template for a Program Description used by AAALAC International forms a convenient framework for this, regardless of whether the facility is accredited by AAALAC or not.
AAALAC's template covers the four facets of an animal facility:
- the animal care and use programme
- the animals’ environment, housing and management
- veterinary care
- the physical plant (infrastructure).
Writing a Program Description is a worthwhile activity even if a facility does not intend to achieve AAALAC accreditation, since the process itself encourages critical appraisal and subsequent adjustment of all aspects of the facility’s function.
To ensure compliance with these tasks, a Master Plan should also be created. In its simplest form, this resembles a year planner that itemises those tasks which need to be accomplished during the study/year, but which are readily forgotten, such as service of equipment, disinfection of premises and regular re-appraisal of the facility’s policies and procedures (see step 2 below). Suggestions for topics to be included in a Master Plan are given here.
2. A set of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)
These contain details of the individual routines which collectively form a description of the facility’s functions. As an absolute minimum, SOPs should be written for the most critical procedures at the facility, which are identified by carrying out a risk assessment at regular intervals in the different zones. Planning novel animal studies will often require the production of new SOPs, a process which gradually improves the knowledge base and competence of the research group and animal facility as a whole. Any potential conflict between health and safety legislation and conditions for optimal animal welfare must be addressed. The quality and acceptance of SOPs can be enhanced if these receive some degree of independent evaluation, such as approval by the institution’s review body, a laboratory animal veterinarian or an industry association.
In addition, a Contingency Plan covering all likely events should also be readily available for all personnel, including guest researchers, temporary staff and those entering the facility outside normal working hours. It should include out-of-hours contact details for all critical support services and key personnel, including principal investigators and their deputies. This Plan should be updated frequently and should cover scenarios such as power failure, the location of fire-fighting equipment, provision of medical first aid and evacuation plans for personnel and animals, as well as more infrequent events which may occur in the area, such as flooding and earthquakes. Suggestions for topics to be included in a Contingency Plan are available here. Resources produced in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic have been collected here.
3. Guidelines for planning animal experiments. These complement and draw upon the knowledge obtained in steps 1 & 2 above, and are the main subject of the various sections in the PREPARE guidelines.
Physical Plant Orientation Training (AALAS training resources for construction, renovation, and maintenance projects in animal facilities)
Maintenance of a recognised level of biosecurity is essential. This will involve quarantine facilities and associated standard operational procedures. After release from quarantine there must be a screening programme for pathogens of concern. The health status of rooms within a facility should be posted, so that all users are aware of this, and of any biosecurity/zoonotic risks. A regular general health monitoring programme must be put in place, either run by an external company or performed in-house, depending on the available expertise.
- Physical hazards in the laboratory animal house (Charles, 2020)
- Animal Research Advisory Committee Guidelines on Animal Facility Management from the NIH, USA
- How quality control could save your science (Baker, 2016)
- Give every paper a read for reproducibility (Winchester, 2018)
- Structural and Functional Concepts in Current Mouse Phenotyping and Archiving Facilities (Kollmus et al., 2012)