Disaster Planning and Preparedness

Geographically speaking, central Canada provides for a safe place to live, with little to no natural disasters, thankfully. However, there are some disasters that can happen regardless of where we live, including floods, fires, power outages, disease outbreak, and as we’ve recently experienced, global pandemics. 2020 has been quite the turbulent year thus far for the world, but more specifically for the vivarium. Due to COVID-19, we were forced to act swiftly and make quick, but informed, and most definitely difficult, decisions. Most colonies had to be euthanized due to the shutdown of academic research as a result of the pandemic. Researchers lost entire colony lines, and in some cases, years of important research. To begin to comprehend the recovery process and the amount of time, an immeasurable cost, that it will take to restore the colonies to their original sizes and begin collecting data again, is simply unfathomable.  It goes without saying that 2020 has been a devastating and emotional time for everyone. Our generation has never lived through such a pandemic and it’s safe to say we were ill prepared.  Looking forward, health professionals predict several more waves of COVID-19 before we are in the clear, and fires and floods can happen at any time, so regardless of the probability of disaster striking, it’s important to have an articulate plan in place, to know the plan well, and to practice regularly. This article provides some insight on how the BSF dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic and some useful tools to create your own disaster plan for your lab. 

Useful Tips 

The cost of developing a single mouse strain can cost upwards of $100,000, not to mention the roughly 18 months it can take to develop the colony, and nearly $6000 a year to maintain it (JAX). The following disaster planning guide outlines the phases of disaster, communications requirements, essential backup supplies, and practicing the plan, in an attempt to help better prepare you and your lab/research for any disaster that may arise.    

Phases of Disaster 

Disaster planning is an ongoing effort; a cyclical plan that must be revisited and practiced often to ensure that protocols are up-to-date and members of the facility, including researchers, are aware of procedures and confident in the steps to follow in the event of a disaster. There are four major phases of disaster: preparation, mitigation, response and recovery (JAX). In the following section, we will outline each step in detail and provide solutions for each phase.  

What can we add to these phases, based on our own recent experience? Not just COVID-19, but disease outbreak, the flood we experienced, etc.  

Preparation. In the preparation phase, all scenarios are on the table. Compiling a team of people at various levels, including supervisors, vivarium staff, admin staff, veterinary staff, and lab members or facility users, is a good start. This team should work together to develop the plan and establish protocol in the event of a disaster.  

Do we want to say this? 

First, a central “command centre” should be established. The Command Centre will be the designated area in which everyone meet and report back to during a disaster.  

Time needs to be taken to prioritize the colonies to determine which are most important, and which, if any, should be cryopreserved. Strains that have been developed and perfected over a long period of time should be cryopreserved, and strain information should be backed up someplace off site in case of an in-house disaster (e.g. a flood or fire).  

Depending on the disaster, we may or may not be able to continue breeding while the facility is being restored to its original state. Consider the implications if breeding is halted and plan for alternative solutions. 

Mitigation. Cryopreserve your strains where possible, particularly in lines that are vital to your research and difficult or impossible to reinstate, to avoid complete loss of colony lines. Prioritize animals and lines to protect. Consider species, uniqueness, recovery/reproduction time, value, vulnerability, manageability, and hazard when determining which animals take precedent.  

Is there anything else that comes in this phase? Do we need to promote cryopreservation for all lines? 

Response. The response phase is one that should occur swiftly, that is, as fast and as seamlessly as possible. We need to consider the possibility of moving colonies to another facility that can maintain them temporarily, or cryopreserve them if necessary.  

Recovery. Ensuring that strain samples/information is stored off site, in a safe location, guarantees that the colonies can be recovered quickly and with ease.  


First and foremost, the team should determine important contacts in the event of a disaster, and should prepare an emergency contact list to be distributed and studied by anyone who may be affected by a disaster. This includes students, faculty, postdoctoral fellows, research associates, volunteers, administrative staff, animal care staff, building or facilities staff, and anyone else who works with, either directly or indirectly, the vivarium.   

Second, communication is key in the event of a disaster. Keeping everyone informed in real time will help ensure that everyone remain calm and confident all will be okay. Consider how communication will take place (e.g. by phone, internet, central command centre, etc.) as some forms of communication may not be available in some situations (e.g. power outage). In the event of loss of power, the team can opt for radios (walkie talkies) or runners who check in with everyone every 30 minutes, for example.  

Practice Makes Perfect 

Practicing the disaster plan will help staff, researchers and other facility users prepare for how to mobilize and act quickly in an efficient manner. Practice the plan at least once a year if not more. Consider, for example, a fire drill. Fire drills run several times a year to prepare building occupants for the real thing. In the same way, running a disaster drill will help you and your team be prepared for when disaster strikes. Some suggestions to implement in a disaster drill include: “fan out calling, simulate emergency response, make sure contacts are up-to-date, find flaws”. 


Be prepared with backup supplies. Depending on your role within the vivarium, you may want to prepare one or more of the following:  

Emergency response personnel supplies. These are supplies meant of the emergency response team who will be in the area. Consider storing these items in a central location (e.g. the command centre) so easy access. Examples of these supplies include: flashlights, food, PPE,  

Emergency animal supplies. Consider what will happen if there is a power outage and the automatic water supply is compromised. Prepare an extra tank of water (gel packs can be supplied for rodents). Extra food, bedding, clean cages, and any other necessities for your animals should all be stored aside. Consider also storing some portable air conditions, humidifiers/dehumidifiers and heaters in the event of a power outage or ventilated air malfunction.  

We hope that these tips and help you and your lab be better prepared in the event of a disaster. 

10 tips to becoming a well-oiled surgical machine

Author: Kelsie Crawford

New to animal surgery? Years of experience? Regardless of your comfort and experience with surgery, you’ll want to read this. We’ve put together the top ten tips you’ll need to help you become a surgical machine.

1. Have a plan and know your space

This is the most important tip of all. In a human operating room or even a veterinary one there are at least two people in the space responsible for the animal, anesthetics, surgical procedure and recovery and likely another person available to grab something from another space if needed. In research related spaces, YOU are responsible for all parts of the process so having a flow planned and knowledge of your space is key to surgical success.  

Know where all the needed things are. Know where all the machines you need are and how they work. Know how to use and troubleshoot the anesthetic machine.  

In general a rodent surgery space should have the following components: animal preparation area; surgeon preparation area, a surgical area and a recovery area set up in a way that promotes easy use of the space. 

Basic supplies should include a sterile instrument pack, sterile supplies (drapes, gauze, gloves, etc.), disinfectant and a glass bead sterilizer, a hot water blanket or heat pad, fluids and necessary medications and a supply of needles and syringes.  

 2. Animal prep

It is important that the subjects are properly identified (strain, sex, age, etc.). Perform a physical examination to determine if the animal is healthy and active.  

Apply ophthalmic ointment to the eyes directly after induction to prevent corneal drying.  

Administer fluids and analgesia pre-operatively.  

3. Skin prep

Preparation should be performed in a separate location than where the surgery will be performed. Always prepare an area approximately twice the surgical area you will need. A gauze sponge or Q-tips can be used for scrubbing, which should be done from the center outward (clean to dirty). Avoid wetting large areas of fur with alcohol because of the potential to induce hypothermia. 

 4. Temperature control 

Rodents tend to lose heat rapidly and should always be kept warm preferably with a hot water blanket or heat pad. Loss of heat can significantly prolong the duration of anesthetic, which in turn increases the risk of complications.  

The decision to drape depends on the surgery being completed. Short procedures may not need draping, however, drapes help to maintain a sterile surgical field, help keep the tips of instruments within the sterile field and help you avoid touching un-prepared areas with your instruments. They also preserve body heat.  

5. Sterility 

Sterility is a key factor in surgical success. Proper layout of your space to keep “dirty” and “clean” separate, using clean, sterile gloves, autoclaved instruments and knowing what to do if something becomes contaminated all help to keep the process smooth, prevent infection and aid in recovery.  

6. Instrument handling

The tips of delicate rodent surgical instruments should be inspected for damage before using. Instruments should be autoclaved in a surgical pack and kept in that pack where possible and not laid out on the surgery table.   

Instruments should be kept away from non-sterile surfaces throughout the surgery and should be re-sterilized once contaminated (e.g. if accidentally touching a non-sterile surface) using a hot bead sterilizer.   

The “tips” technique, where just the tips of instruments are kept sterile, is recommended. It is useful when you’re working alone and touching non-sterile objects (e.g., anesthesia machines, microscopes, lighting) is recommended. 

7. Monitoring anesthesia

Many factors affect the amount of anesthetic required. As a general rule, a smaller species may require somewhat higher dose for induction and maintenance than a larger species because they are able to metabolize it more rapidly.  

Once a surgical plane of anesthesia is reached and surgery has begun, the animal will require constant monitoring every 5-10 minutes, typically done with a “toe pinch” to see if any movement is stimulated. You can also monitor ear pinna reflexes, eye lids, whisker twitching, mucous membrane colour and changes in breathing patterns, to name a few.  

Typically, If an animal is too light, stop and adjust the anesthesia. Continuing surgery can cause further wakening as the animal is stimulated.  

If an animal is too deep and begins gasping, stop and turn off the anesthetic flow. Allow the animal to recover slightly with oxygen before turning back on or continuing.  

8. Surgical technique

Tissues should be handled gently avoiding unnecessary trauma or drying out. Wounds should be closed with appropriate suture material and techniques using the right kind of needles. Good surgical techniques will prevent post-surgical complications like infection, dehiscence, hemorrhage or even death.  

9. Post-operative care

Your surgical suite should have a designated recovery area with a clean cage lined with paper towel and access to heat support. The animal should be monitored and stimulated until it is able to right itself.  

Fluids are lost during surgery for a variety of reasons, so it is important to give more fluids post operatively to aid in rehydration and speedier recovery.  

Apply eye lubrication at the beginning of surgery, as mentioned, during surgery if it is prolonged and when the animal is in recovery to aid in keeping the cornea moist and avoid accidental injury from prolonged dryness.  

Animals should be monitored closely for several days following surgery and given nutritional support, analgesics, fluid therapy and heat if needed.  

10. Record keeping and clean up

Proper surgical and post-surgical records should be maintained. All indicated animal information, medications given and anesthetic records are required.  

When surgery is complete and the animal is recovered, you should give your surgical space a thorough cleaning and disinfecting. Keeping the space clean and ready for future use helps to keep you organized and prepared.  


Research restart and recovery: looking ahead

It is safe to say that COVID-19 has forever changed the workplace and how we go about the day-to-day activities in the vivarium. The past several months have led to many changes within the vivarium and it’s important to note that while research has restarted, the return does not mean business as usual. Decreased staff will continue for some time to alleviate physical distancing challenges within the facility. Social and physical distancing will continue. Personal protective equipment (PPE) will need to be worn at all times, and UofT’s guidelines on next steps will have to be followed rigidly. These changes are in place to ensure that all parties feel comfortable within the vivarium and that research can continue in a safe manner.   

Colony Size 

Labs must maintain their animal colonies at a size that meets their approved research activities and abilities, while avoiding excess animal numbers and aligning with the vivarium’s ability to maintain operations with resources.   

Importance of Sperm Cryopreservation 

Cryopreservation of genetically modified mouse and rat strains serves as a low-cost insurance for rodent colonies, providing protection from genetic drift or a catastrophic loss. Cryopreservation can also be used to archive intermediate genotypes during intercross or backcross breeding or as an economical alternative for sharing strains with collaborators. 

Cryopreserving strains, particularly in lines that are vital to your research and difficult or impossible to reinstate, will also help avoid complete loss of colony lines in the event of a future disaster and/or pandemic. To help determine which lines should be cryopreserved, researchers should prioritize animals and lines that need to be protected. Consider species, uniqueness, recovery/reproduction time, value, vulnerability, manageability, and hazard when determining which animals take precedent.   

Donning Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) 

Face Masks. Face masks protect yourself and others from unknowingly transmitting COVID-19 without apparent symptoms. The use of disposable face masks in all facility spaces is highly recommended. Disposable face masks will be made available at all entry/exit points of the facilities. Provided disposable face masks should be worn by all personnel entering the vivarium and/or core facility when in the presence of others and in public settings where other physical/social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., common work spaces, break rooms, etc.).  The mask is not a substitute for physical and/or social distancing.  Users should aim to use one mask daily to minimize waste as PPE, particularly surgery face mask availability continues to become more difficult.

NOTE: Personal masks will not be permitted for use in the vivarium and/or core facility. Personal masks must be placed in a disposable paper bag and labeled with the users name and date. Personal masks may be retrieved when leaving.     

N95 Respirators. N95 respirators can be reused up to 5 times if not soiled, and may be stored in a paper bag for up to 7 days until reuse, according to EHS. Duke University’s method of decontamination of N95 respirators using Hydrogen Peroxide Vapor (HPV) is currently underway at MSB due to low supply.  

Vendor inventory of N95 respirators is low due to high demand. As a result, it has been difficult to maintain inventory for N95 respirators. Medical face masks are highly recommended. The vivarium has made wearing face masks mandatory. Reuse allowed if the mask is not wet or soiled. 

Gloves. No gloves are to be worn in hallways or common areas. Gloves must only be worn when handling animals or when decontaminating/cleaning. Users must wash hands before and after work. Hand sanitizers will be placed at strategic locations. 

Isolation Gowns. Cloth isolation gowns must be worn when entering the facilities. Soiled gowns will be collected after use in clear autoclave bags and decontaminated prior to laundering. Gowns are not to be worn outside the facilities. Staff have dedicated uniforms which will be laundered onsite. 

Hygiene and Decontamination Practices 

Extra cleaning/disinfection precautions and procedures enforced to minimize the risk to others when using a shared resources. Surfaces that are touched frequently by multiple persons will be disinfected at the start and end of each workday. All shared equipment, collaboration tools, technology (touch pads, phones, laptop plug-ins, etc.) and similar equipment must be disinfected after each use. Cleaning and disinfecting frequently-touched surfaces such as door and cabinet handles, hood buttons, refrigerator and freezer handles, and other highly touched surfaces will be necessary. The vivarium and core facility will maintain a supply of disinfecting products. Researchers must disinfect surfaces they have touched before leaving the vivarium and/or core facility (e.g. BSC, bench top, shared equipment, etc.). 

Hand washing will be required when entering and leaving the vivarium and/or core facility. Hand washing sinks are available in close proximity to the entry/exit doors. In addition, hand sanitizer will be provided at the entrance for application upon entry and exit of the vivarium and/or core facility. Foot disinfection mats are in place at entry/exits to be used instead of shoe covers with the exception of surgery and CL2 spaces. 

Social/Physical Distancing Measures 

Access to the vivarium and/or core facility will be limited to individuals with approval to resume animal research activities. Restricting the number of personnel and establishing workflow processes in vivarial/lab areas will help maintain physical/social distancing. All room reservations/activities scheduled and tracked to minimize personnel interaction and coordination of staff and decontamination procedures. When using common areas or working in the same room it is critically important to observe 6 feet of separation, even when wearing face coverings. Animal care team restructured to allow for adequate staffing during this period while following physical/social distancing measures.  

In conclusion, the upcoming months may introduce continued change in the vivarium but working together to protect ourselves, our colleagues, our animals and our space can help ensure that research continues safely. In short, protecting the facility means temporarily keeping colony sizes reasonable, using PPE to prevent spreading the virus, cryopreserving strains that could be difficult to obtain in the future, washing your hands and decontaminating tools and spaces regularly, and continuing to keep your social and physical distance.

The BSF team will continue to make all efforts to support you now and going forward. We will readily adapt to and communicate any changes that are necessary. 

Look out for our Disaster Planning and Preparedness recommendations in our next newsletter, coming January 2021.  

10 tips for starting your breeding program

Starting a breeding program can seem overwhelming if one is not properly prepared. Here are ten important things to consider before expanding your colony: 

1. Have a plan 

Before breeding, make sure you know which strain you want, the genotypes you want to produce, the number of mice you will need for both experimentation and strain maintenance. Breeding agreements are one way to collect and solidify the needed information.  

2. Obtain multiple breeding pairs when establishing a new colony

Adding additional breeders can significantly speed up the time it takes to expand your colony.  

3. Mate mice early  

Mating mice at an earlier age (e.g. 6-8 weeks of age) can be beneficial in growing your colony. Heavier mice, or those mated after 12 weeks of age, have been proven to be less productive.   

4. Replace non-productive breeders  

If breeders have not produced a litter within 60 days of starting to mate they are likely incompetent breeders and should be replaced to maximize production.  

5. Retire breeders early on  

Mice reach reproductive maturity at 7-8 months of age. It is recommended that breeders retire once reproductive maturity is reached, and replaced with younger mice in order to maximize colony production. 

6. For breeding consistency

Stagger breeding pair ages so they do not all retire at the same time and to help avoid slums of non-productivity.

7. Know your mice

Strain genotype (knock-out, knock-in, hybrid, etc) and phenotype can have a big impact on breeding so know when they are best to breed and the environmental factors required for success. 

8. Breeding environment is as important as the mice themselves 

Light cycles, temperature and humidity, rack placement, noise levels and even personnel can have a dramatic effect on breeding. Consistency is key.  

9. The breeding cage, enrichment and breeding support

The breeding cage is an important part of starting a colony. Each cage should have a hide and material for nest building. Extra enrichment, dietary and nutritional support as well as other aides can be given to cages of sensitive breeding mice when needed to maintain consistent breeding.  

10. Consider cryopreservation 

Consider cryopreserving your unique strains and refresh inbred colonies regularly as a preventative measure against genetic drift, natural disasters, breeding errors, or disease outbreaks.  

New Behavioural Neuroscience Technician/Specialist

The BSF is pleased to announce an addition to the team – a Behavioural Neuroscience Technician/Specialist for the core facility, CBTC. This position will oversee daily operation of the core facility and provide hands-on technical experience and expertise to support researchers and their experimental needs. The Behavioural Neuroscience Technician/Specialist will provide training of core facility equipment including the development and implementation of formal microscopy. Based on facility and research needs, this position will assist in developing new core services, and will coordinate access and use of the core research facility including new user orientation and training in collaboration with the Vivarium Director.