Improving animal welfare using the Animal Welfare Assessment Grid (AWAG)

Summary | Background | Current state of the art | What could your Solution be used for? | Collaboration | Information on IP | 3Rs impact | References

The Animal Welfare Assessment Grid (AWAG) system is a web-based software application designed for capturing, storing and visualising animal welfare assessment data. The system was developed by Public Health England in collaboration with the University of Surrey, School of Veterinary Medicine. The first version was released in 2015 and has been trialled by PHE and a number of other research organisations. Feedback has been very positive in terms of assessing current welfare and identifying areas for potential improvement such as housing, use of enrichment and frequency of applying procedures. During these trials and those from zoos and wildlife trusts, many ideas for future developments have been gathered. Further development is now required to refine the system and to make it applicable to a wider range of applications in the research community where the system has potential to improve animal welfare.


Background

Assessment of animal welfare is essential, not only to meet legislative requirements for review of severity but also to identify areas where the experience of an animal can be improved in terms of environment or by refinement of experimental techniques, leading to less variable data from the use of less stressed animals. Ethical review bodies in the UK are required to assess projects both prospectively and retrospectively for application of the 3Rs but it is currently difficult to present meaningful data that can highlight areas where improvements have or potentially can be made.

AWAG is a unique software system for assessing the lifetime experience of individual or groups of animals as it allows welfare to be quantified and to be presented in a graphical way that is easily understood and can serve to highlight key events that affect well-being.

The system uses four parameters that impact on welfare, namely physical well-being, behavioural and psychological well-being, environmental conditions, and experimental and clinical events. Each of these parameters is subdivided into a number of factors that contribute to the overall score for a particular parameter.  For example the physical parameter has factors comprising general condition, clinical assessment, activity levels, presence of an injury, and inappetence. At each assessment a score is entered for each factor and is added to give an overall welfare score between 1 and 10 where 1 = optimal score and 10 = worst possible case.

PHE has developed guidance on how to apply scores to each of the parameters but the system is flexible enough for each establishment to develop their own scoring guidelines in keeping with the species used and the nature of procedures conducted.  

The software includes data visualisation options to allow production of graphs and reports on the welfare state throughout the animal’s life (See Figures 1 and 2 below). At each time-point on the graph the software allows interrogation and depiction of each factor contributing to the overall score. Thus it is easy to see changes in the welfare status of an animal and, if significant changes are seen, to demonstrate which factors/parameters have contributed to these changes. This allows in-life and retrospective changes to be made that will improve welfare, such as refining experimental techniques, improving caging environments, optimising group sizes or providing enrichment. 

Figure 1: Graph showing cumulative assessment score over time.

Figure 2: Score breakdown for a single point in Figure 1.

Current state of the art

AWAG is a web-based application designed to be installed on an organisation’s IT infrastructure and then accessed via a web browser from a variety of devices including PC, tablet or smartphone.  The system has been designed to both authenticate and authorise its users with all actions logged for quality/audit purposes.

There are other systems available commercially for managing the more general data related to animal management but these don't extend to capturing welfare data in the way AWAG does. These systems are designed to produce reports on animal usage, training and staff competency for example. Incorporating the AWAG in to these existing systems would add the ability to evaluate and quantify welfare in a way that can be easily used by ethical review bodies and by project licence holders required to assess and report annually on the actual severity experienced by each individual animal during a particular study.


What could your Solution be used for?

The AWAG system is a tool for internal assessment and for indicating where improvements can be made to the 3Rs within an establishment. AWAG could also be very useful where there are regulatory requirements to report on the experience of animals in terms of adverse effects on their welfare, for example the UK Home Office require annual reporting on the actual severity of procedures conducted on experimental animals of all species. This system would improve the consistency of such assessments and make it easier to report to ethical review bodies on progress made in refinement of either experimental procedures or housing. In addition an on-going in-life assessment of welfare will allow researchers, technicians and veterinarians to track and make improvements to their studies in terms of experimental design and application of earlier evidence-based decisions on humane end-points.

However, AWAG is a very transferable approach and could be applied in any setting where evaluating and improving animal welfare is important; for example: zoos, veterinary clinics, wild-life trusts and rescue centres, where it has already been applied successfully [1]. It can be used to manage the welfare of a wide range of species. The software itself is fully configurable and flexible enough to support most of these use cases. There is potential also to develop through partnership, a smartphone app version of the software.


Need for collaboration

The first version of the software is capable of identifying areas where housing, enrichment strategies and experimental protocols could be refined to improve the welfare of experimental animals [2].

Further collaboration is now required to strengthen transferability of AWAG to as wide a field of experimental disciplines as possible. Potential partners should be interested in adopting this approach to animal welfare assessment, able to trial the software in an operational environment and willing to provide advice and feedback to support refinement of the system. Physical access to facilities should not be required but staff time will be needed to enter assessment data into the system, provide feedback and complete questionnaires. No specific skills are required to use the software but local ICT support may be required to install the software, though PHE can provide assistance here if required.

Input from partners who could provide additional developer resource to help incorporate the required changes into the software and add additional features and support for different platforms would also be welcomed. This could include easier installation, streamlined data entry, additional data analysis and graphing options, and potentially a smartphone/tablet version of the software.

PHE is also seeking partners interested in utilising the software as a complementary component or ‘bolt-on’ to an existing bespoke or commercial data management system. For example, to provide an additional ‘welfare module’ that would add value to their existing product.


Information on IP

There are no current IP requirements. The software has already been released into the public domain as an open source project.


3Rs impact assessment

AWAG allows assessment of lifetime experience imposed by the various events and management changes that occur throughout an animal’s life. It allows objective feedback on changes affecting welfare, enabling the user to drill down to the separate components that, in combination, affect animals’ well-being. The system produces a visual representation that is easily understood, encouraging communication about welfare and highlights where improvements can be made. This allows specific areas to be identified as the particular cause of any change in welfare, enabling refinements to be focused appropriately to maximise improvements. Use of the system recently provided supporting data for work to optimise a non-human primate BCG challenge model for selection of candidate tuberculosis vaccines that has the potential not only to replace the more severe TB challenge model but also to allow clinical assessment of novel vaccines to be conducted in human volunteers [2].

By combining retrospective and prospective analysis of welfare, AWAG can assist in making difficult quality of life decisions about an animal or group of animals. It provides indicators on how the well-being of animals can be improved and demonstrates to regulators, ethical review bodies or welfare groups that a proactive approach is being taken and that effective action is resulting in the delivery of improved husbandry and care.


References

  1. Justice WSM et al. (2017). Adaptation of the animal welfare assessment grid (AWAG) for monitoring animal welfare in zoological collections. Veterinary Record 10.1136/vr.104309.
  2. Wolfensohn S et al. (2015). Refinement of welfare through development of a quantitative system for assessment of life time experience. Animal Welfare 24:139-149.

Additional information

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