• Kirsty Thomson

Animal Testing at Edinburgh University ‘teaches us nothing’ about Depression

Kirsty Thomson investigates the practice of immoral animal testing at Edinburgh University. Despite recent condemnation by animal rights activist groups, the University remains one of the few institutions who continues to use cruel methods for testing antidepressants.


The Mouse and Blackberry Bush by Rachel Palmer (Instagram: @rachnicol_illustrations)

In January of this year, it emerged that cruel and unreliable practices were taking place at the University of Edinburgh. The university has been accused of a widely discredited test in which small animals are forced to keep swimming in beakers of water that they cannot escape from. The 'Porsolt swim test' seeks out to assess the efficiency of potential antidepressant treatments

News of the testing was first reported by The Ferret, an award-winning investigative journalism platform based in Scotland. In January they explained that animal rights organisations had urged Edinburgh to cease the ‘near drowning’ testing on animals and that how the research was performed lacked any real scientific value and therefore was unreliable and cruel. Their comments came after speaking to PETA who referred to the testing as ‘torment[ing]’ small animals.

These organisations have called on Edinburgh University to ban this forced swim test, as already done by College London, Pfizer, AstraZeneca and RochePharma. These groups banned this test after condemnation from Animal Aid who described the experimentation as being both incredibly outdated and chilling. When speaking to edinburghlive.co.uk, the Scottish animal welfare charity OneKind expressed that they believed that the wider public would be shocked and disgusted that such a practice was taking place at the capital’s famous and prestigious university.


In response to PETA, Edinburgh University has said that they only use animals in research where no alternatives can be found. They also explained that this practice was justified on scientific, ethical and legal grounds. Furthermore, they detail that their animal welfare and ethical review body will continue to keep this under review, as is the protocol for all procedures.

The experiment itself involves small rodents such as mice, rats and gerbils being placed in tanks of water that are heated between 25 and 30•C. The test records the length of time the animal floats in the water and notes behaviours like swimming and attempts to escape. The purpose of the test is to ascertain stress levels; the mice are put in a fight or flight situation which is comparable to a state of panic or terror. In analysing how medicated mice behave in traumatic and stressful conditions, the experiment is said to reveal the practical effects of medication on people. In the past the test has been justified due to the natural buoyancy of mice and rats; the Understanding Animal Research group (UAR) explained to The Ferret that the animals theoretically could stay afloat for up to three days. PETA, however, claims that several animals have drowned during this exact experimentation.


Dr Julia Baines of PETA highlights the barbarity of the testing, writing thus: ‘A near-drowning experience teaches us nothing about the complexities of human depression and doesn’t tell us what drugs will be effective antidepressants in humans.’ OneKind’s director Bob Elliot continued this by explaining that the testing must be ‘terrifying’ for the small animals and was frankly barbaric.


Due to the ongoing pandemic, there is an emerging need for new treatments for depression and anxiety. Just last month Edinburgh University admitted failings in providing necessary support after a second-year student aged just 21 took her own life. This was outlined in an exclusive piece written by the Guardian which looked at gaps in the support system. Young people are expressing more symptoms of anxiety and depression and feel as though opportunities for help and treatment are few and far between


Animals used in testing and research, however, are subject to pain and suffering, all of which is legal. Should that same practice be applied to companion animals it would be considered repugnant, abhorrent and illegal. The emergence of the university using practices such as this has raised serious ethical questions surrounding animal experimentation and grows doubts about these results applying to humans.

Kirsty Thomson is a recent English graduate at the University of Edinburgh. This article was edited by Tamara El-Halawani, also a student at the University.

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