Experimenters Trap Small Animals in Beakers of Water Until They Stop Swimming

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The so-called "forced swim test" is a widely used experiment that's as cruel as it is worthless. In this test, experimenters put mice, rats, guinea pigs, hamsters, or gerbils in inescapable containers filled with water. The panicked animals try to escape by attempting to climb up 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. Eventually, they'll start to float.

Some form of this test has been carried out since at least the 1950s, when notorious Johns Hopkins University experimenter Curt Richter forced rats to swim in cylinders of water until they drowned. It was popularized in 1977 by an experimenter named Roger Porsolt, who called it the "behavioral despair test." Porsolt found that rats who'd been given human antidepressant drugs would struggle and swim for longer than other rats before starting to float, and he concluded that those who swam for less time were in a state of "despair." But the test has been heavily criticized by other scientists who argue that floating is not a sign of despair but rather a positive sign of learning, conserving energy, and adapting to a new environment.

More than 40 years later, in university and pharmaceutical laboratories, animals are being dosed with drugs and then dropped into cylinders of water so that experimenters can measure how long they struggle.

forced swim device
© FST.jpg | TaoPan | CC BY-SA 3.0

Together, pharmaceutical giants AbbVie (formerly part of Abbott Laboratories), Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eli Lilly, and Pfizer have subjected at least 5,461 mice, 1,066 rats, 748 gerbils, and 305 guinea pigs to the cruel forced swim test—as documented in 45 published papers and 16 patent applications over the past 30 years. PETA scientists identified 47 compounds that were tested on the animals and found that even though 36 of them showed promise as having antidepressant characteristics using the outdated forced swim test, none of these compounds is currently approved to treat human depression.

The forced swim test doesn't accurately predict whether a drug will work as a human antidepressant. It yields positive results for compounds that aren't prescribed as human antidepressants, such as caffeine, and negative results for compounds that are. Importantly, antidepressant compounds that could work in humans may be mistakenly abandoned based on the test.


In this episode of The PETA Podcast, Research Associate Jeremy Beckham discusses the useless and cruel forced swim test.

The bottom line: The forced swim test is bad science. These experiments do nothing more than terrify animals and delay development of new effective treatments that are so desperately needed.

After discussions with PETA, PfizerJohnson & Johnson, AbbVie Inc., Roche, AstraZeneca, Novo Nordisk A/S, and Boehringer Ingelheim announced that they will no longer conduct or fund this cruel test!

But pharmaceutical giants Bristol-Myers Squibb and Eli Lilly have refused to enact a ban on the use of the test. Tell them what you think about that by taking action below.

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