Concerns have been expressed that Ireland is becoming an international centre for animal testing.

Latest government figures reveal that the total number of animals used in experiments almost doubled to over 112,800 last year.

The unpublished Department of Health figures show there were increases in the number of dogs, rabbits, pigs, and fish used in experiments during 2008.

The number of cattle used in experiments almost doubled to 4,019, while the number of mice used almost tripled to 71,224 when compared to the previous year.

Overall, 557 dogs, 456 sheep, 224 pigs, 91 guinea pigs, 68 hamsters, 204 rabbits, and 23,198 fish were subjected to scientific procedures, all of which represented an increase on the previous year, the figures reveal.

Among the few categories to buck the trend were cats (down to 295 from 421 during the previous year), birds (582 compared to 1,016 in 2007) and horses, donkeys and crossbreeds (144 versus 153).

Animal welfare campaigners say these figures are still too high, and point out that the total of 112,835 animals used in research last year represents by far the highest number recorded over the 18-year period since 1990.

But supporters of scientific testing on animals argue it is necessary to develop treatment for many human illnesses such as cancer, Alzheimer's disease and arthritis.

According to a more detailed breakdown of the statistics, all of the cats and the vast majority of the dogs (547) came from registered Irish breeders or supplying establishments.

This has prompted the Irish Antivivisection Society (IAVS) to reiterate its concerns that these animals are effectively being "bred to die".

Most of the dogs (543) and all of the cats were also used in experiments which did not involve anaesthesia, the figures show.

IAVS spokeswoman Yvonne Smalley, who obtained the figures, said she was "horrified" to learn that the number of animals used in experiments here has almost doubled in the space of a year. She questioned whether companies have been "wooed to Ireland" on the basis that they can conduct "any amount" of animal experiments on limitless numbers of animals.

"Six new commercial companies have been licensed to experiment on animals in the last couple of years, bringing the total to nine," she said.

"Poisoning animals for commercial advantage is unethical and should have no place in this country's stated policy to encourage the latest scientific research and testing technologies to flourish in Ireland."

One of Ireland's most celebrated authors John Banville has in the past strongly criticised the use of animals for experiments in universities such as Trinity College Dublin, which he said was "morally indefensible".

This followed the publication of figures in this newspaper showing that TCD had spent more than €600,000 over a period of three years procuring 41 live beagle dogs, 69 pigs and over 16,000 mice for medical or scientific research.

The new figures show that none of the cats and just 14 of the dogs used in scientific experiments last year were licensed to universities and colleges. By comparison, all 295 cats and 455 dogs were approved for use in commercial establishments.

Almost 18,500 mice, 7,900 rats, 120 rabbits, 357 cattle and 34 horses, donkeys and crossbreeds were licensed for use in universities and colleges last year, while a further 50,759 mice, 3,108 rats, 84 rabbits, 99 horses, donkeys or crossbreeds and 91 cattle were licensed to commercial establishments.

Under current regulations, private companies or colleges that wish to conduct research using animals must apply to the department for a licence. The figures reflect the number of occasions on which they made such applications in 2008.