View Full Version : Problems with experiments using lab rats

06-22-2014, 04:02 AM
I'm working on a story in which someone is trying to sabotage experiments. One possibility is to switch rats to confuse the results, another is to inoculate or feed them something that would cause a problem (infection, poison, or perhaps a drug). I'm not that familiar with how routine it would be for individual rats to be identified, vs. cages.

I'm also looking for some good ways for the researcher to get revenge on the saboteur and discourage future attempts. One possibility is that the rats become more aggressive after mistreatment or illness, and are more likely to bite. If anything is transmitted, it would need to be only to that one person. Rat bite fever, maybe?

Anyone have any thoughts on other possibilities that might make a satisfying end to the situation?

06-22-2014, 05:55 AM
I only worked with rats for one summer, but my observations:

1) In my lab, anyway, rats were identified by cage # and not by physical appearance. Switching them around certainly would have caused problems. That said, I (the lab tech working with them directly) would have been able to identify a handful of them by behavior alone - #18 bites, #25 is fat and dumb as a post, #2 always finishes the maze fastest, etc. A sudden shift in behavior - accompanied by a niggling feeling that rat #4 was heavier yesterday and rat #12 was longer and and and - would probably have me asking questions.

Infection/poison/drugs would depend on your saboteur's intent. If they wanted to stop this particular attempt at the experiment completely, these would work. If they wanted the experiment to appear to finish normally but yield bad/inconclusive/misleading results, swapping the rats around would be a better idea.

Security-wise, our lab was in the basement of the psychology building on campus. Anyone could get there, but there was really just one main hallway and someone who didn't belong would be noticed fairly quickly. There was a numerical keypad lock on the door to the room where the rats were kept - I suspect labs now have swipecard access now. Any lab which does animal research is pretty much on high alert - there are always animal rights people trying to get in, take video, let animals out of cages, disrupt experiments, etc. If your saboteur isn't part of the lab already, he/she would probably have a tricky time getting in.

06-22-2014, 06:18 AM
Thanks, Wendy, this is extremely helpful. That was my working scenario, identification by cage only but a suspicion of tampering based on recognition of a rat or two and change in behavior. Harder to get away with sabotage if the rats are individually identified.

The saboteur belongs in the lab. The idea would be to record tampering as a next step and to identify the person.

The last part is to figure out a suitable "getting his just desserts" to stop the tampering. Let's assume that the head of the lab has already made it clear that there's no interest in pursuing the allegations, and is disinclined to involve the police or fire anyone.

06-22-2014, 06:22 AM
Rats should be individual identified by marker, ear notching, or if they have spots by simple labels.The would also probably be weighed often and sudden weight changes would be noticed.

It might be easier to mess with the data than the rats?

06-22-2014, 06:42 AM
My husband used to work in a physiology lab. During that time, his rats (who were being given steroids) were accidentally given cancer by a fellow student who some how got mixed up and assumed they were his new batch of rats. Needless to say, no one was happy about this.

06-22-2014, 11:29 AM
Rats should be individual identified by marker, ear notching, or if they have spots by simple labels.The would also probably be weighed often and sudden weight changes would be noticed.

It might be easier to mess with the data than the rats?

This would depend a lot on the lab, the type of experiment, and the discipline. I worked with Norway hooded rats (https://www.google.com/search?q=norway+hooded+rats&es_sm=122&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=VoSmU7mUHcWDogTt04KQDA&ved=0CB4QsAQ&biw=1280&bih=899), which did have a bit of variation in their coloring, and I don't remember there being any further identification. Your run-of-the-mill white rats might be identified differently.

Also, for any behavioral experiment, food/water intake is going to be monitored very closely - either because they're on a low-food diet (i.e. they're getting fed as part of the incentive in the experiment), or they're on a free-feed diet (not food motivated experiment) and it's imperative that every rat has access to food and water at all times. Medical experiments may have different protocols and different rules about treatment of lab animals; I've never worked with them directly so I don't know.

(I say "directly" because my rats were actually part of a trial of a new surgical procedure. Since the procedure had the likely effect of messing with a particular area of the brain, though, they doubled up the experiments - our lab got to run them through behavioral tests dealing with that particular part of the brain, then give them a medication which was suspected might reverse the problem, then they were autopsied to make sure the surgery did what it was supposed to. My job mostly involved throwing rats in a kiddie pool full of paint, though - I'd be hard-pressed to explain the formal parts!)

06-22-2014, 11:33 AM
As for "getting revenge," I find it highly unlikely that anyone associated with the experiment the rats are being used for would use the rats as a means to revenge. It's just too easy to mess up the experiment and invalidate the results. I would expect any lab-related revenge to only involve the saboteur's own experiment (and possibly his own animals), or something more neutral like deleting files from his computer or demagnetizing his swipe card. You're going to need a very good reason for the supervisor not to do anything, though - tampering with an experiment is a really serious issue.

06-22-2014, 11:23 PM
I'm not that familiar with how routine it would be for individual rats to be identified, vs. cages.
This depends on what is being researched. For behavior tests we never had the rats marked, just the cage. But the techs could tell differences in the rats, we even named some of them.


06-22-2014, 11:27 PM
Well, these days when the outside inspector comes to audit -- not being able to identify each rat is going to cause you problems. It might have been more relaxed a few years ago or in small unaccredited places or when solo housing was the norm and so cag ID was sufficient--by a research institute IMHO should have this nailed down.

06-22-2014, 11:35 PM
Thanks to all of you. A kiddie pool of paint sounds memorable, as do rats being used accidentally for two different experiments.

This is partly therapy, but with details changed and a reimagining of the ending of the situation. I've worked in several environments made toxic by sociopaths. One of these individuals was a researcher who escalated behavior to anonymous death threats and caused at least one person to end up in the hospital. In each case, the supervisors' response was to pretend the problem didn't exist or hope it would just go away. Requests for security cameras or phone recordings were denied as being of questionable legality. This type of situation is not terribly unusual, either, judging from other personal stories I've heard. There are also news stories on tampering with experiments that suggest the problem is underreported and usually involves, at best, trying to get either the saboteur or the victim of sabotage to go somewhere else.

As for using the tampered rats for revenge, the rationale is that the experiments are ruined already. I haven't come up with a satisfying way to end the story yet, but am thinking the rats might be expected to respond to aggressively to their tormenter, so when the tampering is repeated with switched-back rats, they bite. That might be bad enough, but if the rats also carry a disease, it might make the incident more serious.

Trying to put a stop to the tampering, combined if possible with some form of revenge, would be prompted by the saboteur not caring whether animals or people are injured or killed. Though the response is a bit desperate, it should end up short of murder--or for that matter, harming other animals.

06-23-2014, 12:04 AM
If the tampering is mean spirited, chipping some plaster ceiling tiles so that rats eat the chips will sicken and easily kill them. And it would be very hard to prove someone did it on purpose.

06-24-2014, 07:02 AM
The rats could be transgenic, that is they have had their DNA manipulated. Someone could replace the transgenic rats with normal rats. There would be no way to tell unless someone sequenced the rats in the lab. There would be no reason to suspect something was amiss until the results were being gathered and the "transgenic" rats were showing the same results as the control rats. Or the transgenic rats didn't have an obvious trait they were supposed to have like they did not have luminescent cells as in optogenetics

06-25-2014, 09:11 AM
I assume you're familiar with the Annie Le case, which may have been triggered at least in part by disagreement about the treatment of lab rats?