Article Review: Animal Play and Animal Welfare

Today’s article comes again from sciencedirect, and it’s the last literature review I’ll do for a while. It discusses play as an indicator for good welfare in captive and production animals. The challenges associated with understanding the motivations of play, and a brief history of landmark studies concerning play behaviors.

Temple Grandin writes that play in dogs may be training for different social situations. She supports this because dominant animals will change roles to a subordinate position and vice versa. In this way dogs and others would be ready to handle new situations outside of their norm. One benefit of play the article mentions supports this theory, that it’s sheer variability and fluidity may prepare animals for the unexpected. While the rest of their survival and social behaviors are predictable and procedural, play constantly creates new challenges and situations to react to that aren’t life or death. I think this makes sense, but I also think it’s even broader than Grandin puts it. Playful bucking and jumping by cattle, goats, sheep, and horses doesn’t seem to be play behavior related to dominance or social skills. To address this, the article lists several schools of thought as to the main purpose of play.

The first category believes in long-term benefits resulting from play. This includes benefits such as somatic development (differentiating muscle fibers, motor skills, etc.), proficiency in species specific behaviors (hunting, sex behaviors, etc.), and general improved physical and emotional flexibility across novel situations (social changes, new environments, anything new). There’s a lot of research supporting this school, but it doesn’t completely answer the question. Adult animals still play, even those that have sexual experience or have no need to hunt. This thinking largely explains why we see so much more expression of playing behaviors in juvenile animals, and is well supported. This sometimes doesn’t pan out well welfare wise, as experience with sexual or aggressive behaviors may not benefit say, your neutered indoor cat.

The second category is more recent, and proposes that play provides primarily immediate benefits to the animal. The first idea is that play provides/communicates information about the immediate environment it finds itself in. This may be information concerning other group members, its effectiveness physically in that situation, or its current level of development. Another idea is that play is self medicating; as it’s been proven that play releases natural opioids (Pellis & Pellis, 2009). Finally, play may be used for social communication. An animal can reinforce its status, reduce tension, or “break the ice” with a strange animal. I like this theory, but just like the other one, it doesn’t provide a complete picture. It sounds like a cop-out, but I think the reality is a mixture of the two thoughts. Behavior is rarely black and white, and I’m convinced by the research on both sides of the debate. What will be interesting is when we single out species specific behaviors and determine if they reflect the immediate benefits as opposed to the long term benefits. Dogs aren’t a good model because the pedomorphism nature of their evolution makes them predisposed to juvenile play their entire lives.

The bulk of the article relates all of the information to the use of play as an indicator of good welfare. It’s not a new idea, and the article provided a very comprehensive pros and cons list. The pros being that play is contagious, it releases opioids, it doesn’t occur in depressed or ill animals, and animals appear to enjoy it. The cons being that it’s extremely variable between species and individuals, and that occasionally it can increase in frequency to respond to stress (lending evidence in support of the second theory). Eventually, play is identified as a decent indicator of good welfare, and promoter of animal contentment. I agree with the conclusion, and also with the final statement that we have many questions left to ask.

Suzanne D.E. Held, & Marek Spinka (2011). Animal Play and Animal Welfare Animal Behaviour (81), 891-899

Newsworthy: “White Coat Effect” and Dog Appeasing Pheromone

It’s tough being a big guy in veterinary medicine. I’m not sure why so many dogs don’t like guys, but its going to be a big hurdle for me as my work continues with both small and large animals. Just today I met someone’s dachshund who did nothing but chase my ankles barking, growling, and snapping his teeth. Any attention or efforts to be friendly only seemed to increase his wrath, and ignoring him completely just encouraged him to be more brave (and not in an investigative way, more of a tactical strike way). Most dogs who dislike men aren’t so overtly aggressive, and just feel uneasy or fearful. One of the ways we try to make these dogs more at ease, in many situations, is to use Dog Appeasing Pheromone. I’ve often suggested that I wear a DAP collar myself so that I can exude a calming presence and change my smell profile, because once they see me and decide to become anxious, DAP won’t do much good.

I was thinking about methods for calming animals after reading this article about the “White Coat Effect” in greyhounds. Just like in humans, greyhounds and other dogs get anxiety and higher blood pressure in response to the stimulus of the veterinary clinic and veterinarians. Anything from the smell of latex, seeing white coats and scrubs, or a combination of several factors could be the stimulus. Not every dog reacts this way, but I imagine most do to varying degrees. Whenever we get a high strung dog, we would spray the counter or a towel with DAP, and hope it helps. One of our veterinarians swears by it for her own dogs (border collies mostly), and I think that it makes a difference.

There are a couple studies that support the use of DAP in creating a calmer environment in different situations, and really, anything helps. For my part, I just try to do the obvious things to make myself less scary: look smaller, don’t face the animal, slow movements, soft voice etc.. My newest thing has been observational learning, so for example, if I can talk to the owner or interact with their other, less fearful animal, before even approaching the nervous dog/cat, I’m hoping that they may not generalize me as just another man.

All I can really hope for is that if I work long term in a clinic someday, I can build a relationship with both the clients and their animals. It may be that there will just be some patients that will be better served by seeing a female veterinarian, and that’s okay, not everyone can be a perfect fit. Hopefully though, working with larger animals will be a better fit for me as a veterinarian, and I’ve got a few more years to decide on my approach to alleviate the fear associated with my white coat.

Book: Animals in Translation (Grandin)

That’s right, I’ve finally finished the book that everyone else has already read. When I first saw Temple Grandin speak at Oregon State and glanced through some of her research, I wanted to read one of her books that not everyone had read. So I picked up Animals Make Us Human. I immensely enjoyed that book, but had no idea that Animals in Translation was so popular for a reason. AMUH takes the principals discussed in the first book and uses them to analyze the quality of care you provide your household pets. Whereas Animals in Translation goes deep into the science and assumptions Grandin makes using her experiences in animal handling and Autism. She then quickly backs all of it up with an extensive review of relevant literature.

There’s a critic on the back of the book that says “there’s a wow on almost every page” and I believe them. There’s a lot of crossover between the two books, but Translation is much more science oriented and acts as a manifesto of Grandin’s observations and conclusions of the perceptive worlds (and umwelts) of animals. It reads like a great pop science book, and keeps the information from getting dull by relating it all to the author’s anecdotal evidence and personal experiences.

As well constructed as the arguments in the book are however, Grandin makes a lot of assumptions. I’m inclined to agree with pretty much all of them, but many times she attacks the certainty of scientists who believe animals can’t do things. I agree more progress has been made assuming possibilities instead of negatives, but I’m sometimes uncomfortable with how certain she believes her own conclusions are. You can’t call out other people for not having satisfactorily proven their conclusions, and then state yours with the same conviction. That being said, she does make all of her statements with a careful amount of humility, and always follows them with something along the lines of “this hasn’t been examined/proven yet, but I believe we will soon see studies that support it”. She’s especially careful when the supporting research is conflicting, and makes suggestions on how future studies could get more consistent data.

I love her examination of brain structure to explain the differences, and similarities, of animals to humans. Using Autism in terms of frontal lobe function seems like an appropriate model for the animal brain, and her hyper specificity theories seem to align perfectly with animal behaviors concerning fear. The black box manages to provide evidence to support most of her theories, and gives them weight across multiple disciplines. The chapters concerning fear were especially interesting, and I’m curious if I can run experiments on my roommates using hard-wired phobias, though they’ve probably already been exposed to them all.

What I really want to do now, is find a book that disputes some of Grandin’s theories. I’m afraid that the arguments she makes are so charismatic and I’m so prepared to agree that I don’t analyze them rigorously enough. I’d like to see writing from someone with a similar amount of education and experience, but with different views, so I can make my own judgments. As of now I’m pretty sure I agree with Grandin on all fronts, but until I receive a conflicting argument I can’t rely on that impression.

Temple Grandin and Dr. James Males at Oregon State University

Like I said, the book was fantastic, and if you’re at all interested in animals, behavior, or just pop science, you need to pick it up. I highly recommend reading animals in translation first. I’ve got one more Grandin book on my shelf I want to read, Humane Livestock Handling, which includes some of her systems that are used in slaughtering facilities across the nation and how to operate them. I’m excited to dig into it, but for now it’s going to sit on the shelf while I read something different. I’ve been reading behavior and cattle literature a lot lately, so I’m looking for something a little different before I start another book in that vein.

Article Review: A review of the causes of poor fertility in high milk producing dairy cows

The more I read, the more I’m extremely grateful for the rigor that my reproduction class required. None of this would have made sense to me last year, and it’s amazing how many of the details I’ve been able to keep in my conscious memory. I’m sad that I’m missing the advanced repro course offered in the fall, but hopefully the experience I’m gaining here will be just as valuable, and I can continue applying what I’ve learned so that I don’t lose the knowledge.

I was extremely impressed with this article. It felt like a lecture rather than a textbook, and as a reader it was easy to finish, but still full of great content. The focus is on how while our dairy cows have been engineered to crank out milk, we’ve seen a dramatic drop in their reproductive success which hurts the efficiency of dairy operations.

Pretty amazing what selective breeding can do. But we knew that, we managed to make dachsunds from wolves.

The article explains that rather than a minimalist approach that looks at only one factor (such as inadvertent selection for poor reproductive fitness) to correct the problem, a more inclusive or holistic approach is needed. I learned a lot more about common problems such as lameness, mastitis, metritis, and poor BCS and how they relate specifically to resumption of estrus after parturition and zygote viability. I’m always amazed how farmers can actually succeed at maintaining herd numbers when conception and birth rates are so low.

There was a lot written about heat stress, and that always seems obvious when it gets over any comfortable temperature. But heat and other environmental stressors are actually a lot more dangerous to reproductive health than I was aware. According to the article, “exposure of ovarian oocytes to unfavorable physiological events during follicle development from primadorial to pre-ovulatory stage may result in the ovulation of defective oocytes up to three months after the insult (Britt, 1992; Fair, 2010).” When you have 60-90 days to breed your cattle to stay on schedule, this is extremely influential to your breeding program. This also makes the situation down in Texas more dangerous in that, with the dry weather during their normal wet season, any excess stress surrounding parturition could delay or destroy what’s left of their breeding program. Once they can’t even breed replacement heifers, its all over.

So, after looking at multiple conditions that hurt reproductive efficiency and discussing their prevention. The article sums itself up with a nice poster identifying the key areas they covered.

(Walsh, 2011)

For the causes and preventative measures covering these you can check out the article. It finishes up by making the point that we can’t just develop a new antibiotic for metritis or mastitis, but we need to reevaluate our genetic selection and more importantly, our management strategies to ensure as many of these factors are met as possible.

Walsh SW, Williams EJ, & Evans AC (2011). A review of the causes of poor fertility in high milk producing dairy cows. Animal reproduction science, 123 (3-4), 127-38 PMID: 21255947

Reference: University of Illinois lactation biology website

In searching for information on mastitis, I came across this treasure trove of information. It was too good for me not to post here. It’s got great summaries, information, and a large collection of case studies. I almost wish the site itself was a book I could keep on the shelf, but for now I’ll just add it to my favorites. I want to recommend the page covering mastitis treatment and control for some light reading. It gives a really quick dirty rundown on industry methods and research. I was especially interested in the attempts to make vaccines, specifically ones for Staphylococcus Aureus, which can cause chronic infections that force dairy farmers to cull cows.

If you want to learn more about lactation biology, or are a student studying milk production, you need to visit this site and use it as a resource. Thank you to Dr. Walton Hurley for making your teaching materials available to everyone.


Article Review: Leptospira and Leptospirosis

In my latest ScienceDirect purge, I came across this article covering Leptospirosis. I had no idea it would be such a dense read, figuring it would be a simple review of the disease with emphasis on new discoveries. I ended up using a lot of immunology references and Google searches. This article isn’t just an entry from the Merck manual.

The article does a very good job of covering Lepto microbiology, but I was especially impressed with the point they made to identify everything we don’t know. Indeed that was the emphasis of the article, that lepto contains so many pathways unique to it as a bacterium that we don’t know nearly as much about it as we do something like E. Coli. Additionally, Lepto is extremely hard to culture, as you end up with non-virulent colonies. They identify and isolate the virulent daughters by inoculating lab animals.

You might assume that immunity to Lepto is a simple thing, given how prevalent Lepto vaccination is due to the zoonotic risk. However the article makes the point multiple times that immunity to one Lepto serovar does not grant immunity to others, though occasionally it can help grant passive immunity or resistance across different species. While the exchange of genetic material between parent and daughter lepto colonies is not well understood, it appears to be slow mutating, which is interesting given how unique the antigens between serovars seem to be.

There’s a lot of complicated immunology discussed in the article that I don’t feel qualified to comment on, but it’s very interesting, and I recommend glancing through. The more microbiology I learn the more I understand that 99% of the workings of the cell happen on membranes (a statement that probably produces a loud “duh” from any student, biologist, or doctor). For a more clinical discussion of Lepto, a simpler reference like Merck or Blackwells will help, as well as several peer-reviewed sources that the article itself recommends for information on clinical presentations.

Adler, B., & de la Peña Moctezuma, A. (2010). Leptospira and leptospirosis Veterinary Microbiology, 140 (3-4), 287-296 DOI: 10.1016/j.vetmic.2009.03.012

Book: Domestic Animal Behavior for Veterinarians and Animal Scientists – Katherine A. Houpt

After a year-and-a-half of on and off reading, I’ve finally finished Domestic Animal Behavior for Veterinarians and Animal Scientists, 4th edition. It’s only about 400 pages, but it’s technically a textbook, and by no means light reading. I got through it by taking it a couple pages at a time, which allowed me to process the information and apply it to things I was learning and reading elsewhere.

It was a great resource for me, as someone who has few experiences working with production animals, to learn common behaviors and methods of correction for domestic species I was less familiar with. I’m sure a lot of it is common knowledge to someone who grew up around cattle, horses, sheep, and swine. But for someone like me who hasn’t spent years observing those animals, the book provided a lot of observations that I haven’t been able to see myself. Grazing and sexual behaviors were particularly interesting to me, and were covered well.

One of my favorite parts of the book was its depth. Each chapter is specific to one behavior aspect (e.g. “Communication”, “Aggression and Social Structure”, “Circadian Rhythms and Sleep”, and “Food and Water Intake”), then breaks it down by species, and then further breaks it down based on problems specific to that species, finally discussing relevant studies. I actually spent quite a few lunch breaks at the clinic last summer reading this book and asking the veterinarians questions.

The language and voice of the book tends to be pretty abstract, but occasionally makes suggestions to scientists studying/raising the species being discussed. The arguments are very compelling when they are immediately preceded by an experiment summary that supports them. The book also does a great job of identifying gaps in the reviewed literature, and asks great questions about continuity. It often seems to be giving a big hint or nudge to animal researchers to explore a specific topic.

Overall, I highly recommend this textbook for anyone interested in behavior or may want to learn more about domestic species. It covers a ton of the physiology and pharmacology behind the decisions animals make, and is a great example of technical but achievable language that animal science/veterinary students should be familiar with. I’ll definitely be keeping it as a desk reference and referring to it whenever starting a project with a new species.

Research: Transport, nutrient restriction, and effects on health and performance of cattle

This is the last of my posts covering the research currently underway at the EOARC. I’m starting to get really excited to go there, a week from Tuesday I get to leave and start working. So after this post I’ll put in some updates on what I’m doing over there, and return to my normal coverage of article reviews as I have time to read them.

The goal of this proposal is to see if a large part of the stress involved with cattle transport is caused by food and water deprivation, independent of the actual act of transport. I wished I had read this one first, as it contains a glimpse into the overall goals at the station.

“the long-term goal of our research program is to elaborate strategies that prevent stress-related illnesses elicited by routine cattle management procedures and, consequently, promote cattle welfare and productivity.”

Which is pretty much exactly what I want to promote in my later career, wherever that leads me. Its the idea of promoting welfare by working with the system, instead of digging trenches.

I actually learned a bit of immunology from this proposal, it was interesting. I always knew that chronic stress weakened the immune system, but apparently acute stress responses help fend off disease. Proinflammatory cytokines are released with acute stress, with the body assuming a response to a pathogen. The problem there, is that chronic stress (like that associated with transport or feed restriction) causes an unnecessary immune response that depletes resources and opens the animals up to infections like Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD). The purpose of this study is to find new strategies in transport to reduce associated chronic stress and thus incidences of BRD.

54 steers will be separated into three groups, one will be transported continuously for 24 hours, another deprived of food and water for 24 hours at the station, and the last kept at the station with normal food and water access. Stress will be quantified by plasma chem profiles, cortisol, prostaglandin E2,  and various proinflammatory cytokine concentrations.

If it turns out the restriction of feed and water causes a significant amount of similar stress to transport, a discussion can open on new techniques in cattle transport that could potentially alleviate some of this stress. Thus, everyone wins, the cows are less stressed, and the industry loses less money dealing with cases of BRD.

You can read the full proposal here.


I’m ready to get over there and get into the thick of the work. I imagine I’ll learn tons more about the previous research carried out at the station that led to these current conclusions. Especially the stuff that hasn’t been published online yet. In addition to my article reviews, I’ll also post a few updates on what it’s like to work over there, and I’ll try to keep them somewhat interesting. There will probably be a gap between posts for a couple weeks while I get all situated (and finish a guest post for another blog). So check back here mid August.

New Name and Look

Making it Happen is now Animal Science Review. The new name reflects the purpose of the blog, making it easier to find for those interested in its content. The makeover reflects what I’ve seen on other popular blogs, the main change being the white background which makes the text easier to read. That’s pretty much it. Hope it’s an improvement.