"Isolation Stress" Revisited: Isolation-Rearing Effects Depend on Animal Care Methods

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Early reports of enhanced behavioral reactivity in isolation-reared rats attributed this syndrome to "isolation stress." In the studies reported here, this "isolation stress syndrome" was reliably obtained in adult rats reared from weaning in individual hanging metal cages. Such isolates showed behavioral and adrenocortical symptoms of profound fear during open-field testing, unlike group-housed controls or littermate isolates reared singly in plastic cages. Animals in hanging metal cages are never touched by human caretakers, whereas rats reared in plastic cages are picked up and put in clean cages twice weekly. Handling hanging-cage isolates twice weekly to model the handling associated with cage changes completely protected against this syndrome. Further, there was no hormonal, neurochemical or anatomical evidence of chronic stress even in hanging-cage isolates. Littermates housed in social groupings (three rats per plastic cage) also froze and defecated in the open field at rates comparable to hanging-cage isolates if they were the first animals to be tested from their social group cage. It is probable that odor cues from familiar cagemates in the open field protected socially reared animals tested subsequently from the same cage from this syndrome. It is concluded that isolates are not chronically stressed, and that rearing effects are the result of a complex interaction between prior handling, social experience and test conditions.