By FIONA MACRAE
Puppies and kittens could be clubbed to death under new European Union regulations on the welfare of laboratory animals.
Currently, newborn puppies, kittens, ferrets and fox cubs which are not needed for scientific research are put to sleep.
But rules due to become law in the UK by 2013 sanction killing by a 'percussive blow to the head'.
Animal welfare charities have described the technique as 'officially sanctioned cruelty'.
And they have accused the Government of bowing to the wishes of drug companies anxious to cut costs.
The directive aims to harmonise standards on labs around the EU. Britain has the option of keeping its own higher welfare standards but shows no sign of doing so.
In a consultation document, the Home Office says that clubbing is likely be to humane – but public perception 'may be (very) poor'.
Dan Lyons of campaign group Uncaged, which brought to light the plans, said: 'The Home Office could have said, “We are not going to introduce it, we are going to retain current methods”.
'Instead, they have opened the door to it.
'The barbaric methods of the Canadian seal hunt are poised to arrive in British labs and breeding establishments.
'The only thing the Government appears to care about is "poor public perception", with no concern for the animals.
'It reflects a deeply disturbing lack of basic morals, ethics and compassion.' The proposal covers very young dogs, kittens, ferrets and foxes, many of which are likely to have been bred specifically for use in experiments only to be killed because they are surplus to requirements.
In other cases, the mother animal may have been used for drug or other testing while the young were still in the womb.
Directive: European Union flags seen outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels
Dr Lyons, one of Britain's leading experts on animal research policy, said that while universities and pharmaceutical companies will still have the option of putting the creatures to sleep, some may see clubbing as quicker and cheaper.
He said: 'It is one of the most extreme forms of officially sanctioned cruelty I have ever come across.'
The RSPCA says that following the directive would leave some animals in chronic severe pain, suffering or distress, as well as allowing inhumane killing.
Dr Maggy Jennings, who heads the charity's work on research animals, said: 'Successive governments have made proud claims that the UK has "the highest standards in the world" for animal research and testing.
'Now they seem prepared to weaken this legislation and take a step backwards on lab animal welfare.
'We urge the Government to respect public concern on this issue and, at the very least, maintain the level of regulation that we currently have.'
'If they don't, animal welfare, public confidence and ultimately UK science will suffer.' Understanding Medical Research, a group representing researchers, universities, drug companies and funding bodies, backed the animal welfare groups' calls for the current methods of killing to be kept.
The legislation could also lead to the number of inspections of labs being cut from 2,000 a year to just 80 and to animals being housed in smaller cages.
Public consultation on the proposals closes on Monday.
Some 3.7million animal experiments were carried out in British labs last year – a one million rise on a decade earlier.
The bulk of the experiments involved mice, followed by fish, rats and birds.
More than 2,500 experiments were on monkeys and other primates, and 8,000 on dogs and cats.