Progress! A New Policy Could Eliminate the Use of the Forced Swim Test in Australia

Posted on by Dan H

Following requests by PETA and Animal-Free Science Advocacy (formerly Humane Research Australia) starting in 2020, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has now finalised its advice on the forced swim test, an experiment in which small animals are dropped into beakers full of water and made to swim for their lives. In its updated policy, NHMRC recognises that the test significantly impacts animal welfare. The new policy prohibits the council from funding any experiments that use the test to model human depression in order to study “depression-like behaviour” or anxiety disorders and their treatment.

While NHMRC stopped short of implementing a full ban, these new requirements will significantly reduce, if not eliminate, the use of the forced swim test in Australia. This new policy represents more fallen dominos for experimenters’ flimsy rationalisations for using animals supposedly to study human mental health.

The policy also states that experimenters funded by NHMRC who are currently using the test must re-evaluate their project within three months and that animal ethics committees must include compelling justifications for using the forced swim test in their annual reports. PETA entities around the world have been pressing for an end to the use of the test globally, and NHMRC’s report cites our work on this issue. PETA will continue to monitor any lingering use of the forced swim test in Australian laboratories.

What Is the Forced Swim Test?

Also known as the “despair test”, the forced swim test was supposed to provide insights into human depression, but scientists are divided about the correct interpretation of the results. At first, animals used in this test panic and try to escape by attempting to climb the sides of the beakers or even diving underwater in search of an exit. They paddle furiously, desperately trying to keep their heads above water until they eventually start to float.

Some experimenters claim that animals who spend more time floating are depressed, but other experts reason that animals are more likely learning, conserving energy, and adapting to a new environment.

Forcing frantic animals to swim for fear of drowning is both physically and psychologically abusive – not to mention irrelevant to human depression. An analysis of data from 15 major pharmaceutical companies shows that the forced swim test doesn’t accurately predict whether a compound will have antidepressant efficacy in humans.

How to Help Mice

Scientists all over the world – including at top pharmaceutical companies such as Bristol Myers Squibb, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, AbbVie, Johnson & Johnson, and Roche – are no longer wasting time and money on this test. Allowing it to continue at Australian universities and other research institutions advances nothing but cruelty to animals.

Until a full ban comes into effect in Australia, please continue to urge university executives to ban the forced swim test at their institutions.