Design and statistical methods in studies using animal models of development

ILAR J. 2006;47(1):5-14. doi: 10.1093/ilar.47.1.5.


Experiments involving neonates should follow the same basic principles as most other experiments. They should be unbiased, be powerful, have a good range of applicability, not be excessively complex, and be statistically analyzable to show the range of uncertainty in the conclusions. However, investigation of growth and development in neonatal multiparous animals poses special problems associated with the choice of "experimental unit" and differences between litters: the "litter effect." Two main types of experiments are described, with recommendations regarding their design and statistical analysis: First, the "between litter design" is used when females or whole litters are assigned to a treatment group. In this case the litter, rather than the individuals within a litter, is the experimental unit and should be the unit for the statistical analysis. Measurements made on individual neonatal animals need to be combined within each litter. Counting each neonate as a separate observation may lead to incorrect conclusions. The number of observations for each outcome ("n") is based on the number of treated females or whole litters. Where litter sizes vary, it may be necessary to use a weighted statistical analysis because means based on more observations are more reliable than those based on a few observations. Second, the more powerful "within-litter design" is used when neonates can be individually assigned to treatment groups so that individuals within a litter can have different treatments. In this case, the individual neonate is the experimental unit, and "n" is based on the number of individual pups, not on the number of whole litters. However, variation in litter size means that it may be difficult to perform balanced experiments with equal numbers of animals in each treatment group within each litter. This increases the complexity of the statistical analysis. A numerical example using a general linear model analysis of variance is provided in the Appendix. The use of isogenic strains should be considered in neonatal research. These strains are like immortal clones of genetically identical individuals (i.e., they are uniform, stable, and repeatable), and their use should result in more powerful experiments. Inbred females mated to males of a different inbred strain will produce F1 hybrid offspring that will be uniform, vigorous, and genetically identical. Different strains may develop at different rates and respond differently to experimental treatments.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Growth and Development / physiology*
  • Models, Animal*
  • Models, Statistical*
  • Research Design*
  • Statistics as Topic / methods*