End the Forced Swim Test

End the Forced Swim Test

Latest update

Over 25,000 people signed the petition asking for the NZ Government to ban the Forced Swim Test in NZ and to also conduct a full review and evaluation on the validity of animal-based psychological tests in NZ. This was submitted on World Animal Day (4th October 2019).

We were then invited to present to the Economic Development, Science and Innovation Select Committee (20th February 2020). After our presentation, the committee concluded that the test was largely useless for science but did not want to ban it! Their reasoning was that the test was going to die out anyway. They suspect no one will even be using the test in another decade or so.

NOW: The Forced Swim Test has lost its social license! NZAVS has been steadily working away behind the scenes, and all signs suggest that animal ethics committees (the groups of people who approve and monitor the use of animals in science in NZ) know that the Forced Swim Test doesn’t work.

After our petition submission for the Forced Swim Test, we swapped to a focus on individual animal ethics committees. In the long term, we’ll be regularly checking in with the committees to see if they’ve received any applications to use the Forced Swim Test. So far, we know of at least one case where a researcher applied to use the Forced Swim Test but was declined by an animal ethics committee.

This wasn’t an accident, nor was it some sign that animal ethics committees are suddenly doing everything right. Rather it is a sign that our mahi is effective – together, we have removed the social license of the notorious Forced Swim Test. In other words, although there is no legislative ban on using this test, we have put animal ethics committees off approving its use. A HUGE win for animals, people and science. 

What is the Forced Swim Test?

The Forced Swim Test is an animal test that involves forcing small animals such as rats or mice to swim in an inescapable beaker of water until they ‘give up’ and float. Some researchers use the test as a misguided attempt to mimic depression or hopelessness in humans. 

Why the Forced Swim Test is invalid

The Forced Swim Test doesn’t predict how humans will respond to drugs and has no relevance to human depression. The causes of depression are not adequately understood yet - many different factors could contribute to symptoms of depression in humans. Trying to replicate a complex human condition by dropping mice or rats into inescapable beakers of water is questionable, to say the least!

Scientists themselves are speaking out against the Forced Swim Test due to its lack of merit. PETA scientists have found that in 30 years (from 1989 to 2018), experimenters gave animals 47 different test drug compounds before subjecting them to the Forced Swim Test. 36 of them "showed promise" based on the invalid interpretation of the test. But exactly zero of those are now on the market to treat human depression. 

An analysis conducted with data from four major pharmaceutical companies found that the Forced Swim Test was less predictive than chance at determining if a compound would have antidepressant efficacy in humans.

A groundbreaking study published in the leading scientific journal Nature highlights the need to end the use of mice in cruel depression experiments. In this study, 64 researchers analyzed the brains of mice and humans. They found substantial species differences in types of brain cells and the ways they produce proteins critical to neuropsychiatric function. The authors noted numerous “failures in the use of [the] mouse for preclinical studies” because of “so many [species] differences in the cellular patterning of genes.” Find out more here

Read more about the invalidity of this test here. 

The above cartoon was created by artist Sharon Murdoch and was published by The Dominion Post.


Why the Forced Swim Test is being used

In the 1950s, it was thought that the longer an animal in water struggled before ‘giving up’ and floating, the less depressed that animal was. This supposedly showed that the antidepressant had worked and contributed to making the Forced Swim Test become a routine part of testing experimental treatments.

But we’ve learned a lot in the past 60 years – including that the Forced Swim Test is not a valid way to measure if an antidepressant works. In fact, the evidence now shows that the animal's behaviour in the Forced Swim Test represents a survival strategy rather than a state of ‘depression.’


Pointless suffering for animals that also harms people

More than 95% of drugs that appear to work in animal experiments fail to lead to drugs or therapies for humans.[1]This means that there is a high probability that antidepressants thought to be of potential use for humans will subsequently be abandoned based on the misleading results of the Forced Swim Test.

Depression is a serious condition that affects many Kiwis. Between 50-80% of New Zealanders will experience mental ill-health, including depression or addiction challenges, at some point in their lives.[2] Therefore finding effective treatments is paramount. Our best chance of finding these treatments is by using human-relevant research methods that produce valid results.


Tests that could be used instead 

There are already many reliable methods to test drugs meant for humans without using animals. These include computer modelling of human systems and drug repurposing programmes. According to the Citizens for Alternatives to Animal Research and Experimentation (CAARE) other reliable methods include functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) which has been used to predict which patients will respond best to antidepressant treatment,  diffusion tensor imaging and examining brain tissue from deceased donors to identify genes involved in depression and other psychiatric illnesses.

In addition to these humane and scientifically valid methods, more time and resources should be spent on developing additional effective tests. Read more here.


The waste of time, money and other resources

The annual cost of serious mental illness in NZ is an estimated $12 billion,[3] highlighting the need for prioritising human-relevant research.

Research funding is finite. Due to its lack of translational value to humans, each instance in which time or money is spent on research involving the Forced Swim Test is a waste of these valuable resources that could be better allocated elsewhere: towards human-relevant research methods and improving mental health care programmes already in place.


Industry Rejects the Forced Swim Test

In December 2018, after talks with PETA, pharmaceutical giant AbbVie committed to not funding or conducting Forced Swim Tests. Pharmaceutical companies Johnson & Johnson (March 2019), DSM Nutritional Products (April 2019), NutriFusion LLC (May 2019),  Astraea Therapeutics and Roche Pharma (June 2019) Boehringer Ingelheim (July 2019), AstraZeneca and Novo Nordisk A/S (August 2019)  Sage Therapeutics (October 2019), Pfizer (November 2019), Bayer (December 2019), Bristol-Myers Squibb (January 2020) and GlaxoSmithKline (June 2020) have also committed to not use or fund this test in the future. 

This means that three of the top five pharmaceutical companies worldwide (in terms of revenue), and also eleven of the top 20, have committed to no longer using the Forced Swim Test. 

This shows that even the pharmaceutical industry recognises this test as outdated and irrelevant.

Public support for a ban 

  • Students from over a dozen clubs (representing over 1500 students) at Victoria University, including the Psychology Club, have signed a letter to the Vice-Chancellor and members of the University’s Animal Ethics Committee urging the institute to end use of the Forced Swim Test. 
  • In addition, over 16,000 people have sent an email to the Vice-Chancellor of Victoria University and members of the Victoria University Animal Ethics Committee asking that they end the use of the Forced Swim Test.
  • Over 25,000 people signed the NZAVS and SAFE petition against the Forced Swim Test.
  • Hundreds of people (including psychologists, researchers, mental health workers, counsellors, doctors, nurses, veterinarians and vet nurses) have provided a personal statement to support our call for a ban on the Forced Swim Test. Read these here.
  • A public poll conducted by Horizon in October 2019 indicated that this call for a ban on the Forced Swim Test in New Zealand is supported by a majority of Kiwis, with only 14% of New Zealanders supporting the continued use of the test. 
  • The Body Shop and LUSH both support an end to the Forced Swim Test. 


More positive news

Leading research institute, King’s College London has officially become the first known university to ban the Forced Swim Test after talks with PETA UK (January 2020). The University of Adelaide in Australia has also ended its use of the Forced Swim Test (September 2020). 

In July 2020, PETA reported that the Taiwan Food and Drug Administration decided to end all animal tests in its draft regulation for marketing foods and beverages using dubious anti-fatigue health claims. According to the report, previously thousands of animals were subjected to the Forced Swim Test for these claims.

UPDATE: Victory! In April 2021, PETA reported that the Taiwan Food and Drug Administration finalised the regulation to end all animal tests for marketing foods and beverages using dubious anti-fatigue health claims.

Noteworthy articles


How you can help

  1. Get the latest updates and find out about new ways you can help end animal testing in NZ by signing up to our mailing list


[1] National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. (2019). About New Therapeutic Uses. Retrieved from https://ncats.nih.gov/ntu/about

[2] Paterson, R., Durie, M., Disley, B., Rangihuna, D., Tiatia-Seath, J., & Tualamali'i, J. He Ara Oranga: Report of the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction, 2018. The Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction. Wellington, New Zealand, 219.

[3] Paterson, R., Durie, M., Disley, B., Rangihuna, D., Tiatia-Seath, J., & Tualamali'i, J. He Ara Oranga: Report of the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction, 2018. The Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction. Wellington, New Zealand, 219.


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