Experimental scratching in animals has hitherto been provoked by substances injected into the skin or central nervous system. We aimed to investigate if spontaneous scratching in the rat can be reduced by sedatives and antipruritics, and to assess if spontaneous scratching is elicited from the skin or the central nervous system. It may also be a complex behaviour related to the rat species, different from clinical itch. Eight male hairless rats were studied for 6 weeks. The animals were recorded on videotape in the middle of the day and at night, and the scratching activity was counted. The following substances were tested sequentially: midazolam, mepyramine, a eutectic mixture of lignocaine and prilocaine (EMLA®), betamethasone dipropionate and a vehicle. On days 1–3 of each sequence, the test material was applied to a 42-cm2 area on the rostral part of the back. Subsequent treatment of the whole body was made on day 4. Midazolam was injected intraperitoneally from day 1 to day 4. After 4 days of treatment, there was a wash-out phase of 3 days until the next sequence. We found a positive correlation between minutes awake and number of scratch episodes. Spontaneous scratching was lower after mepyramine on day 4 (p = 0.046) and after midazolam injections on days 1–3 (p = 0.009) and day 4 (p = 0.003). The local anaesthetic, EMLA, did not significantly influence spontaneous scratching. In conclusion, only the drugs with sedative properties suppressed spontaneous scratching, which is probably a cerebral phenomenon or otherwise explained general behaviour, rather than a reaction to skin stimuli. Thus, for testing of topically applied antipruritics, spontaneous scratching cannot be used as an animal model. Furthermore, evaluation of provocative scratching should eliminate/exclude spontaneous scratching.

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