Article Review: Effects of acclimation to human interaction on performance, temperament, physiological responses, and pregnancy rates of Brahman-crossbred cows

Came across this article when searching for stress studies in cattle. I’ve been more and more interested in examining behavior and stress as I’ve read more Temple Grandin. I think it’s a field I can explore as I look for things I want to do with my DVM. Don’t get me wrong, I love working with clients and animals in a clinic setting, but I don’t see myself as a business owner, and I really want to look at what else is out there. Options I’ve been exploring are USDA jobs, lab work, and of course research through the college and elsewhere. Anyway, Giovanna Rosenlicht got me into the habit of reading journal articles in my spare time, which is great and actually really interesting….I am a nerd.

Anyway I don’t have too much to say about this article, the methods are sound and thorough, 395 animals used is a sample size I can get behind. Too many studies especially with companion animals have pitiful sample sizes of like 20 animals. Anyway, following reading the discussion, the dramatic difference I expected to see in the people acclimated group was not present. However there was a final statement that acclimation did have an inconsistent positive effect on reproduction success.

I have a vested interest in animal welfare, and I strongly support an approach that helps the industry see benefit, rather than dig trenches. Studies like this are the only way non-radical, educated, and effective welfare decisions can be made. What happens when people try to make knee-jerk responses to animal welfare? Look at the ban on horse slaughter and the subsequent problems associated with that piece of feel-good legislation.

Anyway, I get sidetracked, this post was supposed to be concerning the article. One of the main points that is crucial to the focus of the study was the correlation with excitable temperament (as often seen in Bos Indicus ancestry cattle) and elevated cortisol concentrations; which are detrimental to multiple physiological systems in the body, and result in “subclinical health disorders that negatively affect cattle reproduction, such as lethargy, lameness, and immunosuppression.” With cortisol levels (along with epinephrine and many other endocrine secretions that are a result of handling and housing stress) being a quantitative measure of animal health and contentment, this data will add onto the already large stack of evidence that the better we treat our meat/eggs/milk, the better product we receive.

It’s unfortunate that a larger and more consistent correlation was not found within the study, but the data is still sound, and definitely leaves room for further study in specific age groups, species and breeds, and other acclimation techniques.

It is also worth mentioning that this research was carried out in Florida, but one of the authors is now doing research at the Oregon State Burns research station. I’ll be looking for and have found many related articles from that location/author and will be discussing more of those in the future.

Newsworthy: Males Make Pregnant Horses Abort

I’m not a horse person, and I don’t think I ever will be. I think to truly be a horse person, for better or worse, you need to spend many years in their company. They’re not like dogs who have been so selected for companions that we understand their emotions even if we are not behaviorists. Additionally it’s harder for us to comprehend the way a prey animal views the world, much as it’s hard to understand the thoughts of people with severe phobias, OCD, or Autism (of course, if you’re Temple Grandin, this does not apply to you ­čÖé ). In short, a relationship, whether as master, companion, or physician between yourself and equine needs to be developed before you can operate on a “horse person” level.

Until that day, I’m limited to looking at horses in an abstract sense, an academic one. My efforts to get to know these animals through playing Polo have been mildly successful, but I still don’t feel the understanding that I do among other animals, whether it be a feral cat or an old retriever. Heck, I feel like I understand cattle better than horses. However, I am still very interested in their physiology, behavior, and interactions. I’ve greatly enjoyed riding and spending time with these animals, maybe I’m on my way.

My news browsing today led me to this article. Which was really neat because I just finished the horse maternal behavior in my behavior book (Houpt) that I’ve been reading in my spare time. Obviously traveling to use a foreign stallion to breed your horse is extremely common, as you may be paying for some race winner etc.. Protecting that investment and avoiding a needless abortion of the foal you paid for is important.

The article is interesting to me however, because the implications of messing with natural animal processes here show a direct loss of revenue from an industry perspective. I am not a holistic or natural training/management supporter, nor do I agree with any of the principals and claims made by animal rights supporters, but animal welfare is a goal everyone should strive for, and improving animal welfare benefits both the producer as well as the animals they are utilizing. The article suggests that mares who have just been bred away from home should be allowed to freely mate with stallions at home, using vasectomized stallions so that you don’t inadvertently breed a foal that you do not want if the desired breeding was unsuccessful.

This could also provide the benefit of unwanted males still having an industry job, if their genes are not desirable, they don’t need to be culled or shipped to mexico to be processed for meat (if we could once again allow horses to be used as meat in the US that would be ideal…), they could be used as the “home males” that prevent abortions resulting from their presence┬á following breeding.

Midway through writing this I realized I was basing these assumptions based on a BBC news report, so I went ahead and found the original article (not sure if non ONID users can use that link).

After reading the actual article, my assumptions remain supported, that mares who were in the present of home geldings or stallions across a fence (unable to solicit coitus to confuse paternity) were 7 times more likely to abort than those allowed to have direct contact with familiar males. Though I was wrong that this should be implemented as an industry practice, as housing bred mares in their own enclosure with no other males present or nearby has even higher reproductive success.

That’s enough thoughts on this particular article, but I will say this, the possibility implied in the discussion that mares may be able to consciously choose to abort their foal though an unknown mechanism, is really cool.