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Definition of 'Distress' Under Debate

Plans by the U.S. government to change the way researchers characterize pain and distress in lab animals is drawing reaction from biomedical research and animal-rights groups. In July, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) asked for comments on the new guidelines, which are supposed to help researchers spot and lessen discomfort in lab animals. Among other things, the plan defines "distress" as stress that an animal "cannot escape" and has "negative effects on its well being."

Last week, however, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) said it would prefer a different definition. Scientists at a FASEB workshop endorsed language, adopted by the National Research Council in 1992, that describes stress as "an aversive state in which an animal ... shows maladaptive behaviors." FASEB also urged USDA to adopt practical guidelines that would rely on the "professional judgement" of researchers and veterinarians.

The Humane Society of the United States and other animal-welfare groups, however, want USDA to adopt a Canadian-style classification scheme that ranks levels of pain and distress into three or more categories, based on examples of common lab procedures. "We need a pain and distress scale with very clear-cut markers," says John McArdle, director of the Alternatives Research & Development Foundation of Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Other schemes may still surface, as USDA is likely to extend its current 8 September comment deadline until later in the fall.

Related sites
USDA's Animal Welfare Information Center
FASEB statement on USDA guidelines
Humane Society Pain & Distress Initiative and its proposed pain scale
The Canadian pain classification