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Research Animal Laboratory Safety

Animal safety

Research on animals should only be performed by laboratory employees with the proper training. By using safe work practices and appropriate PPE, workers can minimize the likelihood that they will be bitten, scratched, and/or exposed to animal body fluids and tissues.

Possible Injuries/Illnesses

The most common work-related health complaints reported by individuals working with small animals are the following:

  • sprains
  • strains
  • bites
  • allergies

1. Which of the following is a common health complaint by laboratory employees working with small animals?

a. Colds
b. Cuts
c. Influenza
d. Allergies

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Of the complaints listed above, allergies (i.e., exaggerated reactions by the body’s immune system) to proteins in small animals’ urine, saliva, and dander are the greatest potential health risk. An allergic response may evolve into life-long asthma. Because mice and rats are the animals most frequently used in research studies, there are more reports of allergies to rodents than other laboratory animals.

Most workers who develop allergies to laboratory animals will do so within the first 12 months of working with them. Sometimes reactions only occur in workers after they have been handling animals for several years. Initially, the symptoms are present within minutes of the worker’s exposure to the animals. Approximately half of allergic workers will have their initial symptoms subside and then recur three or four hours following the exposure.

Employers should adopt the following best practices to reduce allergic responses of workers:

  • Eliminate or minimize exposure to the proteins found in animal urine, saliva and dander.
  • Limit the chances that workers will inhale or have skin contact with animal proteins by using well-designed air handling and waste management systems.
  • Have workers use appropriate PPE (e.g., gloves, gowns, hair covers, respirators) to further minimize their risk of exposure.

2. Most workers who develop allergies to laboratory animals will do so _____.

a. immediately when exposed
b. 7 to 10 days after working with them
c. within the first 12 months
d. slowly over a few weeks

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Zoonotic Diseases

Zoonatic Disease

There are a host of possible infectious agents that can be transferred from animals to humans. These are referred to as zoonotic diseases. The common routes of exposure to infectious agents are:

  • Inhalation: Inhalation hazards may arise during work practices that can generate aerosols. These include the following: centrifugation, mixing (e.g., blending, vortexing, and sonication), pouring/decanting and spilling/splashing of culture fluids.
  • Inoculation: Inoculation hazards include needlesticks and lacerations from sharp objects.
  • Ingestion: Ingestion hazards include the following: splashes to the mouth, placing contaminated articles/fingers in mouth, consumption of food in the laboratory, and mouth pipetting.
  • Contamination: Contamination of skin and mucous membranes can occur via splashes or contact with contaminated fomites (e.g., towels, bedclothes, cups, money).

Some of the zoonotic diseases that can be acquired from animals are discussed in the next few sections.

3. Centrifugation, mixing, pouring/decanting and spilling/splashing of culture fluids may result in exposure to _____ hazards.

a. injection
b. inoculation
c. inhalation
d. ingestion

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Wild and Domesticated Animals

Wild Animals
Wild and Domesticated Animals
(Click to enlarge)

Wild rodents and other wild animals may inflict an injury such as a bite or scratch. Workers need to receive training on the correct way to capture and handle any wild animals. While they may carry or shed organisms that may be potentially infectious to humans, the primary health risk to individuals working with captured animals is the development of an allergy.

The development of disease in the human host often requires a preexisting state that compromises the immune system. Workers who have an immune compromising medical condition or who are taking medications that impair the immune system (steroids, immunosuppressive drugs, or chemotherapy) are at higher risk for contracting a rodent disease.

  • Wild rodents may act as carriers for viruses such as Hantavirus and lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV) depending on where they were captured.
  • Each rodent species may harbor their own range of bacterial diseases, such as tularemia and plague. These animals may also have biting insect vectors which can act as a potential carrier of disease (mouse to human transmission).
  • Examples of zoonotic diseases that can be transmitted from wild and domesticated animals to humans are listed in the chart to the right.
Non-human primates

Non-human Primates

It should not be surprising that, given our many similarities, humans and non-human primates are susceptible to similar infectious agents. Because of our differences, the consequences of infection with the same agent often vary considerably. Infection may cause few if any symptoms in one group and may be lethal to the other. Exposures to body fluids from non-human primates should be treated immediately.

4. Workers who have an immune compromising medical condition or who are taking medications that impair the immune system _____.

a. are at higher risk for contracting a rodent disease
b. should handle animals only with latex gloves
c. should receive all required vaccines regardless of exposure
d. are at no higher risk in handling animals in the laboratory

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Training and Best Practices


Employers should ensure that workers are trained to adhere to the following good practices to prevent exposure to zoonotic diseases when working with research animals:

  • Avoid use of sharps whenever possible.
  • Take extreme care when using a needle and syringe to inject research animals or when using sharps during necropsy procedures.
  • Never remove, recap, bend, break, or clip used needles from disposable syringes. Use safety engineered needles when practical.
  • Take extra precautions when handling hoofed animals. Due to the physical hazards of weight and strength of the animal, large hoofed mammals pose additional concerns for workers. Hoofed mammals may resist handling and may require multiple workers to administer medication or perform other functions.
  • Keep hands away from mouth, nose and eyes.
  • Wear appropriate PPE (i.e., gloves, gowns, face protection) in all areas within the animal facility.
  • A safety specialist may recommend additional precautions, based upon a risk assessment of the work performed.
  • Wear tear-resistant gloves to prevent exposure by animal bites. Micro-tears in the gloves may compromise the protection they offer.
  • Remove gloves and wash hands after handling animals or tissues derived from them and before leaving areas where animals are kept.
  • Use mechanical pipetting devices (no mouth pipetting).
  • Never eat, drink, smoke, handle contact lenses, apply cosmetics, or take or apply medicine in areas where research animals are kept.
  • Perform procedures carefully to reduce the possibility of creating splashes or aerosols.
  • Contain operations that generate hazardous aerosols in BSCs or other ventilated enclosures, such as animal bedding dump stations.
  • Wear eye protection.
  • Wear head/hair covering to protect against sprays or splashes of potentially infectious fluids.
  • Keep doors closed to rooms where research animals are kept.
  • Clean all spills immediately.
  • Report all incidents and equipment malfunctions to the supervisor.
  • Promptly decontaminate work surfaces when procedures are completed and after surfaces are soiled by spills of animal material or waste.
  • Properly dispose of animal waste and bedding.
  • Workers should report all work-related injuries and illnesses to their supervisor immediately.
  • Following a bite by an animal or other injury in which the wound may be contaminated, first aid should be initiated at the work site.
    • Contaminated skin and wounds should be washed thoroughly with soap and water for 15 minutes.
    • Contaminated eyes and mucous membranes should be irrigated for 15 minutes using normal saline or water.
  • Consult an occupational health physician concerning wound care standard operating procedures (SOPs) for particular animal bites/scratches.

For more information see OSHA’s publication, Laboratory Safety-Working with Small Animals.

5. Which of the following is a best practice to prevent exposure by animal bites?

a. Wear non-latex gloves
b. Wear tear-resistant gloves
c. Use animal restraints
d. Anesthetize the animal prior to handling

Check your Work

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