Britain carried out 2.85 million scientific experiments on animals last year, up 2.3 percent on 2003 and the highest level for 12 years, according to data released by the government on Thursday.
About 85 percent of experiments involved mice, rats and other rodents, while dogs, cats, horses and non-human primates accounted for less than 0.5 percent.
Much of the increase was due to greater use of genetically-modified animals -- mainly mice -- whose genes are now routinely “knocked out” by scientists to provide valuable experimental models for understanding human diseases.
“The rapid progress resulting from genetic modification shows that research on animals continues to play an essential role in medical progress,” said Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council.
Blakemore said genetically modifying animals had given valuable insights into conditions such as Down’s syndrome and the treatment of certain types of cancer.
Animal testing is an emotive subject in Britain, which has a reputation as a country of animal lovers.
Small groups of protestors have conducted sometimes violent campaigns against companies and individuals involved in animal experimentation, leading one firm, Huntingdon Life Sciences, to quit the London stock market and base itself abroad.
“Animal research has led to advances in the treatment of many conditions such as asthma, peptic ulcers, schizophrenia and depression, polio, kidney disease and Parkinson’s,” Home Office Minister Andy Burnham said in a statement.
But pressure group Animal Aid slammed the rise in testing as an “unforgivable betrayal of the public as well as of animals,” and raised particular concern about the growing use of genetically-modified animals.
The pharmaceutical industry, which has been a leading target of animal rights campaigners, said drug manufacturers had actually reduced the number of animal tests conducted each year.
“The number of procedures in industry has declined, with the small expansion being in the public sector -- academia and government,” commented Philip Wright, director of science and technology at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.
The decline in animal testing by industry reflects investment in alternative procedures -- but also a decision by some British-based drug makers to carry out animal research abroad, Wright said.
A MORI study for the Coalition for Medical Progress has shown that 75 percent of Britons can accept animal testing as long as it is for medical purposes.