Sex differences in anxiety-like behaviors in rats

Physiol Behav. 2019 Nov 1:211:112670. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2019.112670. Epub 2019 Sep 2.


The use of animal models for behavioral and pharmaceutical testing is employed in many different fields of research but often relies solely on male animals. When females are included, the existing literature frequently offers inconsistent results regarding the effects of sex and/or estrous cycle on anxiety-like behaviors. Our current study sought to establish baseline or normative behaviors in three commonly employed tests of anxiety-like behavior, and determine any sex or cycle differences. Anxiety-like behaviors in male and naturally-cycling female Sprague-Dawley rats were assessed using elevated plus maze, open field, and a social interaction/avoidance paradigm. Female rats were examined once daily to determine their stage of estrous. Results from the elevated plus maze but not the open field showed that female rats spent significantly more time in open areas than did male rats; however, there was no effect of estrous cycle stage. The social avoidance test revealed that female rats spent significantly more time in the interaction zone with an empty wire mesh cage (novel object), but there was no sex difference in time spent with an age- and sex- matched target rat. Females often exhibited greater locomotion as compared to males in social and non-social tests, but this was not related to primary anxiety measures in these tests. Overall, our findings indicate that outcomes differ in tests of anxiety-like behaviors, highlighting sex differences in the expression of anxiety-like behaviors that depend on the test employed. Importantly, the lack of estrous cycle effects suggest that for these anxiety-based tests, female Sprague-Dawley rats could be collapsed across the cycle phases to facilitate the inclusion of females in future behavioral experiments.

Keywords: Elevated plus maze; Estrous; Female rat; Social avoidance; Stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anxiety / psychology*
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Estrous Cycle / physiology*
  • Exploratory Behavior / physiology
  • Female
  • Male
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Social Behavior*