Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Animal Alternatives Searching: Search Terms & Subject Headings

Guidance for Researchers

Identifying Search Terms

Your search terms will include, as relevant: 

  • Species, strain.
  • Anatomy or tissue involved.
  • Chemical compound names - generic and proper.
  • Potentially painful or distressful procedures.
    • If you are unsure if a technique is potentially painful, it is best to include it.
    • You may use the end result of the technique to help you to identify alternative procedures. For example, if a catheter is being used to monitor blood pressure, using search terms related to monitor blood pressure rather than the term "catheter" can possibly lead to the discovery of other techniques to accomplish the same goal.
  • List search terms related to the 3Rs, relevant to the study.

Consider synonyms and alternate spellings and using subject headings or controlled vocabulary.

Search Terms for the 3Rs

Reduction & Refinement

Analgesic, hypnotic, sedative, tranquilizer
Anesthesia, anaesthesia
Assay, technique, method, procedure
Enrichment (behavioral, environmental)
Experimental design
Handling, housing, husbandry, caging
Invasive, non-invasive
Monitoring device
Positive reinforcement
Postoperative, postsurgery       
Reduction, refinement
Stress, distress
Train, educate, teach, instruct


Algae, fungus, hydra, plant
Anesthesia, anesthesia, anaesthesia
Animal testing alternatives, alternative
Artificial intelligence system, AI
Assay, technique, method, procedure
Autopsy, biopsy
Bacteria, microorganism, protozoan, single-celled organism, yeast
Cell, cell line, cellular
Computer aided instruction, computer assisted instruction, CAI
Culture (cell, tissue, organ)
Digital imaging
Environmental enrichment
Fish, cephalopod
Insect, invertebrate
Isolated (cell, tissue, organ)
Membrane, organ, organelle, slice, tissue, tissue equivalent
Model (animal, cadaveric, interactive, mathematical, statistical, theoretical)
Physicochemical systems 
Replacement, surrogate
Simulation (computer)
Structure - activity relationship
Train, educate, teach, instruct
Virtual (surgery, reality)
Vitro (AND method, model, technique)


Using PubMed Medical Subject Headings

MeSH are standardized terms that describe the main concepts of PubMed/MedLine articles. Searching with MeSH can increase the precision of your search by providing a consistent way to retrieve articles that may use different terminology or spelling variations. 

Note: new articles will not have MeSH terms; the indexing process may take up to a few weeks for newly ingested articles. 

Use the MeSH database to locate and build a search using MeSH.

  Access the Mesh Database from the PubMed homepage under the Explore menu.

To search the MeSH database:

  • Search for 1 concept at a time.
  • If you do not see a relevant MeSH in the results, search again with a synonym or related term.
  • Click on the MeSH term to view to the complete record​, subheadings, broader and narrower terms. 

Build a search from the results list or from the MeSH term record to specify subheadings.

  • Select the box next to the MeSH term or subheadings that you wish to search and click Add to Search Builder.
  • ​You may need to switch AND to OR, depending on how you would like to combine terms.
  • Repeat the above steps to add additional MeSH terms. When your search is ready, click Search PubMed.

In general, when searching PubMed or one of the other MEDLINE interfaces it is a good idea to use the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) to find relevant articles. PubMed includes a searchable MeSH Database to help you identify the best terms for your search. There are a number of MeSH terms that apply to a literature search for alternative research methods in animal studies. Whenever one of these terms is used, be sure to include the [MESH] notation so that the system is triggered to look for the term as a subject heading and not a phrase.

Sample standard MeSH terms (click on the keyword to see the MeSH definition, if available):


"Animal Use Alternatives" [MeSH]

"Animal Testing Alternatives"[MeSH]

"Models, Animal"[MeSH]

"Animal Husbandry"[MeSH]

"Animal Welfare"[MeSH]

"Animals, Laboratory" [MeSH]


"Housing, Animal"[MESH]

"Laboratory Animal Science"[MESH]

"Investigative Techniques"[MESH]

"Research Design"[MESH]

"Pain" [MeSH]

"Stress, Physiological" [MeSH]

These terms can be combined to produce generalized searches for major topics in animal testing, including the health, welfare, and housing of animal subjects.

Pain, Stress, Welfare

Pain and/or Stress Prevention and Control: ("stress, physiological/prevention and control"[MESH] OR "pain/prevention and control"[MESH] OR "stress, physiological/veterinary"[MESH] OR pain/veterinary"[MESH]) AND "animal welfare"[MESH] AND ("animals, laboratory"[MESH] OR "research design"[MESH]) Search!

Laboratory Animal Welfare: "animal welfare"[MESH] AND "animals, laboratory "[MESH]) Search!

Housing, Including Cages and Caging: ("animal husbandry"[MESH] OR "animal welfare"[MESH] OR "housing, animal"[MESH]) AND "animals, laboratory"[MESH] AND (caging OR cage* OR "housing, animal"[MESH]) Search!

Transgenic Mice: "mice, transgenic"[MESH] AND ("animal welfare"[MESH] OR "Animal Testing Alternatives"[MESH] Search!

Handling: "animals, laboratory"[MESH] AND "animal husbandry"[MESH] AND ("handling (psychology)"[MESH] OR handling[Text Word]) Search!


To exclude animals and humans:
YOUR TOPIC/OBJECTIVE NOT ("Animals"[Mesh] OR "Humans"[Mesh]) Search!
To include possible non-animal models/methods:
YOUR TOPIC/OBJECTIVE AND (("Models, Theoretical"[Mesh] NOT "Disease Models, Animal"[Mesh]) OR "Computer Simulation"[Mesh] OR "Cadaver"[Mesh] OR "Culture Techniques"[Mesh] OR "Cells, Cultured"[Mesh] OR "In Vitro "[Publication Type]) Search!

To exclude mammals:
YOUR TOPIC/OBJECTIVE AND "Animals" [Mesh] NOT "Mammals"[Mesh] Search!

To minimize pain:
YOUR ANIMAL TYPE AND/OR PROCEDURE AND ("Central Nervous System Depressants"[Mesh] OR "Sensory System Agents"[Mesh] OR "Anesthesia and Analgesia"[Mesh]) Search!

To minimize complications:
YOUR ANIMAL TYPE AND/OR PROCEDURE AND ("Intraoperative Complications"[Mesh] OR "Postoperative Complications"[Mesh] OR "Perioperative Care"[Mesh]) Search!

To improve animal welfare:
YOUR ANIMAL TYPE AND "Animal Welfare"[Mesh] Search!

Prepared searches are from Chilov, Marina, Matsoukas, Konstantina, Ispahany, Nighat, Allen, Tracy Y. and Lustbader, Joyce W.(2007)'Using MeSH to Search for Alternatives to the Use of Animals in Research',Medical Reference Services Quarterly,26:3,55 — 74. PMID: 17915631, as reproduced by Duke University's Medical Center Library & Archives.