MORE than 55,000 animals have been used in experiments at universities in Glasgow in a year, according to new figures.

The vast proportion were used at Glasgow University in medical testing and research, statistics uncovered under a Freedom of Information request reveal.

The institution insisted the animals - including 50,488 rodents, 3,272 fish and 763 birds - were used only when there was no other alternative.

Glasgow University said the animals were used for research into human and animal diseases to"advance knowledge and treatment of areas including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, auto-immune and inflammatory diseases and neurological conditions."

Glasgow Caledonian University logged 679 animals used during 2014, saying they were used for medical research. They included 238 rats, 284 zebrafish and 157 mice.

The University of the West of Scotland said they used 104 animals - 54 fish and 50 mice.

In a statement, Glasgow University said the research made "a vital contribution to the understanding, treatment and cure of a range of major 21st century metabolic and infectious diseases in humans and animals."

It said it only uses animals in research programmes of the "highest quality and where there are no alternatives."

The university added that it was "committed to the principles of reduction, refinement and replacement." It also said it ensures the number of animals used is minimised and that procedures, care routines and husbandry are refined to maximise welfare.

But Cruelty Free International (CFI), formerly known as the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) - hit out at "a large increase" in the number of animal experiments taking place at Glasgow University.

Dr Katy Taylor, head of science, said: "We are disappointed to see another large increase in the number of animal experiments taking place at the University of Glasgow. A total of 54,811 animals were used by the university, an increase of 23 per cent compared to the previous year when 44,579 were used. There was a shocking increase in the number of rabbits, rodents and fish.

"We uncovered a sickening experiment carried out by researchers at the university's dental school, which involved removing a section of bone from the jaws of white rabbits and attempting to repair it with stem cells taken from their spines. One of the rabbits died before the end of the study while the rest were killed."

A university spokesman said: "The rabbit is an accepted model for cranio-facial surgery. The rabbits involved in the bone regeneration study, published in 2013, were anaesthetised, did not show any signs of pain and their welfare was not comprised.

All animals returned to normal eating within 2-4 days after surgery, except one which was euthanised for reasons unrelated to the study.

The university said any research must be essential for the development of new medicines and therapies and was not undertaken lightly. It is carried out under strict Home Office guidelines.

A Caledonian University spokeswoman said: "We consistently try to find innovative, reliable and sustainable research alternatives where it is possible, including using human skin tissue and cells that can be used for multiple studies related to diabetes research.

"Animal scientific procedures are carried out in relation to the university's work in Health and Life Sciences."

The Univerisyt of West of Scotland said the research contributed to the treatment of arthritis as well as the effects on environmental change on fish populations.

Dr Julia Baines, science policy advisor to People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals, said: "Universities are responsible for nearly half of all experiments conducted on animals, but like all segments of the animal testing community, they are not forthcoming with information about the cruel and archaic experiments taking place behind closed doors."