Ethics and animal models

The use of animals in research remains an essential scientific practice that is rigorously supervised and involves ethical concerns on a daily basis.

Using animals to help research progress

Alternative methods have been developed but animal experimentation in research remains essential for studies of the full complexity of life. However researchers can't just do anything they like! Several criteria must be met to obtain the right to work with animal models and a certain number of rules must be respected, requiring a high level of protection for the animals used. A CNRS production.

Text: Estelle Rünneburger and Charlotte Pallud
Voiceover: Douglas Antonio Motion
Design: Loïc Kessler
Subtitles: Aude Nicla


Animal welfare - a current issue

Animal welfare and particularly the use of animals for the purposes of scientific research is a core contemporary concern. However, researchers have wrongly remained too silent about this subject which means citizens may lack the right information on regulated scientific practices that respect animal sentience and are guided by ongoing ethical studies and thought.

The use of animal models in research remains an essential practice

Understanding all forms of life

The use of animal models is essential to decipher living organisms and there is currently no alternative that can completely replace this.

In vitro (cell-based) or in silico (computer modelling) methods have an important role to play in many research projects but these alone do not enable researchers to understand and reproduce all the multiple interactions within a living organism.
Research requires all types of models (in vivo, in vitro, in silico) to understand the complexity of life at different scales.

Health applications

Studying animals is often essential for researchers to understand the origins of human pathologies and develop new therapeutic approaches.
"Giving up the use of animal models would mean moving towards blind and dangerous medicine that contravenes all the rules of bioethics and international law on clinical trials involving humans." Catherine Jessus, director of the INSB from 2013 to January 2019.

Why is animal research essential for scientific medical progress?

The GIRCOR is an association dedicated to thought and communication on the use of animal models in research. It was set up in 1992 on the initiative of Hubert Curien, the then Minister of Research, and today has over forty member institutions from the public (CNRS, INSERM, INRAE, CEA, Universities, etc.) and private sectors (SANOFI, IPSEN, VIRBAC, LEEM, SIMV, etc.).

The GIRCOR has been chaired since 2015 by Ivan BALANSARD, the Veterinarian at the CNRS Ethics and Animal Models Office. GIRCOR dialogues and communicates with the general public and manages the transparency charter on the use of animals for scientific and regulatory purposes in France.


Practices governed by strict and fair regulations

Researchers' practices are governed by strict regulations requiring a high level of protection for the animals used.
The regulations in force in France dating from February 2013 set out the different rules applied:

The species of animals concerned

The regulations protect vertebrate animals including self-sustaining larval or advanced foetal forms and cephalopods. This means they apply to fish, birds and mammals but not to insects. The use of primates is restricted and the use of great apes like chimpanzees is forbidden in Europe.

The origin of animals

The animals must come from approved breeders or suppliers.

Approval of establishments

Any establishment that breeds, supplies or uses animals must be approved by its préfecture (local government authority). A vet is appointed for each establishment and regular inspections are carried out.

Ethical reviews and authorisation of research projects

All research projects that include animal experimentation must obtain a favourable ethical evaluation from an approved ethics committee. They also need to obtain an authorisation from the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation.


Potentially painful experiments must be performed under appropriate analgesics and/or anaesthetics.

Animal welfare body

Each institution has an animal welfare body that monitors research projects.

The regulations ensure that no procedures involving animals are carried out if an alternative method exists that responds to the same scientific objective. The 3Rs rule is the basis of these regulations.

An ethical approach

The 3Rs rule - replace, reduce, refine
This has been the ethical basis for the use of animals in science since 1959.
Replace – using other models than animals whenever possible:

  • Computer models (in silico);
  • Physico-chemical methods, cells or organoids (in vitro);
  • Using less sensitive animal models (invertebrates like the drosophila fly or the C. elegans worm, etc.).

Reduce – Cutting the number of animals used:

  • Optimising biostatistical studies and experimental design;
  • Promoting the sharing of scientific data and the publication of negative results;
  • Promoting the sharing of biological samples.

Refine –Minimising constraints, stress and pain:

  • Improving animal housing conditions;
  • Improving anaesthetic and analgesic protocols;
  • Favouring non-invasive exploration approaches (MRI, ultrasound, etc.);
  • Establishing appropriate limits by controlling the evaluation of animal welfare.

Key figures

The animal models used the most in research1  :

  • 1Source: Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, 2019
Mice 60,7%
Fish 10,5%
Rats 8,7%
Rabbits 9,1%
Dogs and cats 0,25%
Primates 0,2%