Defensive burying in rodents: ethology, neurobiology and psychopharmacology

Eur J Pharmacol. 2003 Feb 28;463(1-3):145-61. doi: 10.1016/s0014-2999(03)01278-0.


Defensive burying refers to the typical rodent behavior of displacing bedding material with vigorous treading-like movements of their forepaws and shoveling movements of their heads directed towards a variety of noxious stimuli that pose a near and immediate threat, such as a wall-mounted electrified shock-prod. Since its introduction 25 years ago by Pinel and Treit [J. Comp. Physiol. Psychol. 92 (1978) 708], defensive (shock-prod) burying has been the focus of a considerable amount of research effort delineating the methodology/ethology, psychopharmacology and neurobiology of this robust and species-specific active avoidance or coping response. The present review gives a summary of this research with special reference to the behavioral (face and construct) and pharmacological (predictive) validity of the shock-prod burying test as an animal model for human anxiety. Emphasis is also placed on some recent modifications of the paradigm that may increase its utility and reliability as to individual differences in expressed emotional coping responses and sensitivity to pharmacological treatments. Overall, the behavioral and physiological responses displayed in the shock-prod paradigm are expressions of normal and functionally adaptive coping patterns and the extremes of either active (i.e., burying) or passive (i.e., freezing) forms of responding in this test cannot simply be regarded as inappropriate, maladaptive or pathological. For this reason, the shock-prod paradigm is not an animal model for anxiety disorder or for any other psychiatric disease, but instead possesses a high degree of face and construct validity for normal and functionally adaptive human fear and anxious apprehension. However, the apparent good pharmacological validation (predictive validity) of this test reinforces the view that normal and pathological anxiety involves, at least partly, common neurobiological substrates. Therefore, this paradigm is not only suitable for screening potential anxiolytic properties of new drugs, but seems to be especially valuable for unraveling the neural circuitry and neurochemical mechanisms underlying the generation of active and passive coping responses as different expressions of anxiety.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / drug effects*
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Escape Reaction / drug effects
  • Fear / drug effects*
  • Fear / physiology
  • Models, Animal*
  • Panic / drug effects*
  • Panic / physiology
  • Psychotropic Drugs / pharmacology
  • Rodentia


  • Psychotropic Drugs