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Using Clicker Training and Social Observation to Teach Rats to Voluntarily Change Cages

Published: October 25th, 2018



1Translational Animal Research Center, University Medical Centre, Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz

This protocol introduces a method of cage change for rats via clicker training. Rats learn the desired behavior not only by direct training but also by observational learning. The implementation of this fast and easy protocol might help to improve well-being and hygiene in rodent facilities.

Cage cleaning is a routinely performed husbandry procedure and is known to induce stress in laboratory rats. As stress can have a negative impact on well-being and can affect the comparability and reproducibility of research results, the amount of stress experienced by laboratory animals should be minimized and avoided when possible. Further, the direct contact between the rat and animal caretaker during the cage change bears hygiene risks and therefore possibly negatively impacts the well-being of the rats and the quality of the research.

Our protocol aims to improve the routinely performed cage changing procedure. For this reason, we present a feasible protocol that enables rats to learn via clicker training and observation to voluntarily change to a clean cage. This training helps to reduce stress caused by the physical disturbance and handling associated with the cage changes and concurrently enables a reduction in direct contact between animal and animal caretaker after the training phase is completed.

The implementation of clicker training to rats is fast and easy. Rats are generally interested in the training and efficiently learn the desired behavior, which entails changing cages through a pipe. Even without training, the rats learn to perform the desired behavior by observation, as 80% of the observational learning group successfully changed cages when tested. The training further helps to establish a relationship of trust between trainer and animal. As hygiene and well-being are both very important in animal experiments, this protocol might also help to improve high-quality research.

Routine procedures can cause stress in laboratory animals1,2,3,4. It has been shown that cage changing does increase cardiovascular parameters and general activity in rats4,5,6. Such stress responses can at least be partially due to the physical disturbance and handling associated with cage changing procedures rather than the new unfamiliar environment2,4. Of particular importance is the neg....

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The handling of the rats and the experimental procedures were conducted in accordance with European, national, and institutional guidelines for animal care.

1. Acclimatization and Habituation

NOTE: If rats were not transported, the acclimatization and habituation time can be reduced. For noninvasive identification, color the tail with skin-friendly marker.

  1. Week 1: Acclimatization
    NOTE: Two sessions should be performed during the f.......

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The training was conducted on a cohort of ten female Lister hooded (LD) rats. Ten untrained but gently handled female LD rats served as a control group. Gentle handling means that the rats were only lifted by their body and not lifted at the base of the tail. To evaluate the learning by observation, we added one further group of 10 female LD rats, which were not trained but were cage-mates of the trained rats and were able to observe the training. All rats completed the acclimatization an.......

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The protocol described above is a useful extended application of our previously described clicker training protocol for laboratory mice10. The implementation requires only minutes per day over a total of seven weeks, including acclimatization, habituation and clicker training. For feasibility, this protocol was limited to week days with sessions of approximately ten minutes per pair of rats. The protocol can appear to be time-consuming to establish in large rat colonies, but if the animals are des.......

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The authors are most grateful to Thomas Wacker for his technical support. We further thank Dr. Mirjam Roth for her kind support.


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Name Company Catalog Number Comments
Target Stick with Clicker Trixie 2282
Metal Pipe (Alu Flexrohr nw 100) Rotheigner available in construction marktes
White Chocolate/ white chocolate cream Company doesn't matter, preferable organic quality
Prism Version 6.0 for Mac GraphPad Software

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