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Animal Alternatives Searching: Introduction

Why Search for Alternatives?

It's the Law

The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) requires principal investigators to consider alternatives to procedures that may cause more than momentary or slight pain or distress to animals and provide a written narrative of the methods used and sources consulted to determine the availability of alternatives, including refinements, reductions, and replacements (the 3 Rs).

Conducting a literature search is the primary method of meeting this requirement. Policy 12 of the The USDA's Animal Care Policy Manual outlines the requirements for conducting and reporting the results of a comprehensive literature search.


Save Time, Money & Effort

By examining the literature, you may discover that other laboratories have already worked on certain parts of your research project, making a duplicate experiment unnecessary. You may also discover alternative methods of animal care, animal treatment, or experimental design that require fewer or less expensive specimens.


The Three Rs
  • Refinement: ways to reduce animal pain and/or distress within the study.
  • Reduction: ways to reduce the number of animals that are used for the study.
  • Replacement: ways to remove animals from the research to achieve scientific goals.
  • Alternatives: an aspect of replacement, reduction and/or refinement applied to minimize animal pain and distress, consistent with research goals.
  • Databases: electronic publication collections. There are many that cover specific subject areas. It’s unlikely that one database will have all alternatives related to a study. 
  • Key Words/ Search Terms: words that are specific to the study. They describe both the animals and aspects of the research that may cause pain or distress.

Assessing Potentially Painful Procedures

Before searching for potentially painful procedures, it is necessary to determine which procedures in the protocol have the potential to cause pain or distress. This is not always a straightforward process; these resources can be a starting point for making those determinations.

Animal Care and Use Proposal

Prior to ACUP approval, principal investigators must demonstrate that they actively searched for alternatives to procedures that may cause animal pain or distress.

To answer Q. 12 of the ACUP form, include:

  • Date of search
  • Time period covered by the search
  • Database names
  • Search strategy used—at minimum, list key words and phrases used
  • Briefly discuss each “R” separately. Address what alternatives are used, and if some are not used, why this is so.
    • Replacement
    • Reduction
    • Refinement


Policy #11 defines a painful procedure as "any procedure that would reasonably be expected to cause more than slight or momentary pain or distress in a human being to which that procedure is applied, that is, pain in excess of that caused by injections or other minor procedures." A few examples of painful/distressful procedures are listed on this page.

Policy #12 details the requirement of considering alternatatives to painful and distressful procedures, recommending a database search as the most effective method to determine alternatives.

A list of resources about pain management, alleviation, humane endpoints, and refinement techniques in various species.

More Information...


Questions / Assistance

Elizabeth Salmon

Research Services Librarian