Microscopic observation in live tissue, awesome! But don’t ignore the methods

It has been far too long since I wrote a blog post. Look out internet, I have a blogging itch that needs scratching, and it’ll probably cause a rash!

…I apologize for that mental image.

The NIH sent me an email this week (via the various government listservs I’m enrolled in) that was proudly declaring that the mysteries of the cell were being solved right now, so I took the clickbait. In it was a cool study where we were able to actively watch mitochondria oscillate inside a living animal.

Fig from the article
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.celrep.2014.09.022

There are two rabbit holes to enter with this article. The first is the observation of interest, which was mitochondrial oscillation. While these slinky moves have been observed in cell cultures, the authors wanted to see if there were any differences in cells that were part of a living, breathing animal.

Movement isn’t a surprising thing. If you’ve ever drawn the ATP synthase lollipop (totally relatable experience for everyone, right?), you already know that some of the main membrane proteins in mitochondria are constantly rolling around attaching phosphates to create ATP. The cool thing though, is that since they’re synching up with each other, that means there could be cellular communication mechanisms that are helping coordinate mitochondrial efforts to produce energy as needed. Which makes sense if you’re generating ATP in response to a stress event on a cellular level.

But what if you’re an animal? A slice of muscle tissue is made up of many muscle fibers, all of which contain mitochondria. It seems like there would be a need to coordinate increased energy production if you were planning to use all those fibers in sync to move. When looking at the cellular tissue inside a living rat’s salivary gland epithelium (the covering layer of the gland), the authors observed that mitochondria oscillated in sync not only within individual cells, but in sync with other cells in the tissue. The authors describe it in their press release wonderfully:

“You look through the microscope, and it almost looks like a synchronized dance”

It’s always more fun looking at living cells and tissue, it reminds you that all of that stuff we can’t see is always buzzing around without our notice and crawling all over our skin and gut.

Hypochondriacs I apologize for that second image.

So since we like looking at living things, let’s get to the second cool part that the press release seems to gloss over, how the hell were we observing cell structures in a living animal!

The principal author, Roberto Weigert, was the first one to publish this technique, so I went to that article to better understand what’s going on. I don’t want to dig into the microscopy so much, as the technical information is a little overwhelming. I’ll just say that there are really cool microscopes that can use near-infrared light to penetrate deep into different tissues (segregated visually by the injection of fluorescent dyes). The article has some amazing images of mouse vasculature that are both easy to observe and understand. But that technology isn’t what this blog is about. What I want to know is, what did this study entail for the animals used?

For this procedure, the research rats were anesthetized and had their salivary glands “externalized”, meaning that they gained access to them presumably by opening/removing the skin, fat, and muscle layers and segregating the gland as far as they could for the procedure (you’d be surprised how far you can pull things out while they’re still attached). Then, they bathed/saturated the glands with various dyes and chemical/hormone baths depending on what they were observing in that particular instance.

Once the images were taken, presumably these brave rats were euthanized, I couldn’t find a reference in the procedure but ultimately it had no bearing on the ability to replicate the experiment and was not included.

Now imagining these experiments in vivo (in living animals) brings up nasty words like vivisection. However it’s always important that the authors of the study aren’t left to singly decide if the research is necessary or not, it’s up to the Animal Care and Use Committee to allow the use of animal subjects for research at the NIH.

In order to use and ultimately euthanize these animals, the authors had to prove that: the information learned from the study will benefit humans and/or animals, there is a rationale for using animals including why a surrogate (e.g. cell culture) would not work (the authors make a great statement in their press release by describing the observations as if you’re looking at a tree vs. the forest), and a description of how the authors have actively attempted to minimize pain and discomfort for the animals used.

Ultimately I chose to write about this article because the methods were cool, but also to acknowledge the animal use inherent, but understated, in this type of research. It’s important to remember that often new information comes at the cost of continuing to support animal research when justified, and to not hide the facts from ourselves.

In order to responsibly care for all of our domestic species, we need to remember that before they were beef, eggs, milk, nuggets, or a data point, they needed to be cared for and euthanized humanely.

ResearchBlogging.org

Natalie Porat-Shliom, Yun Chen, Muhibullah Tora, Akiko Shitara, Andrius Masedunskas, & Roberto Weigertemail (2014). In Vivo Tissue-wide Synchronization of Mitochondrial Metabolic Oscillations Cell Reports : http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.celrep.2014.09.022

Weigert R, Porat-Shliom N, & Amornphimoltham P (2013). Imaging cell biology in live animals: ready for prime time. The Journal of cell biology, 201 (7), 969-79 PMID: 23798727

Factors affecting adoption rates in shelter cats, is welfare the immediate concern? What about marketing?

"Kipling" currently up for adoption at Heartland Humance Society (Corvallis)

As I continue my research trend concerning adoption rates in shelter cats, I came across this thesis by Nadine Gourkow, who is much more famous than I ever realized while reading the article. A brief google search of her name reveals that she is at the forefront of shelter cat welfare, and clearly I need to read more of her work as I continue to shape my study.

Her masters thesis explores the background for my intended study, in that it seeks to examine not only those factors inherent to the cats and their housing situation, but in what potential adopters are looking for. I’m hoping to collect as much of this information as possible to develop a hypothesis as to whether shelter layout could increase adoption rates by marketing less attractive cats in situations where they may be perceived as more adoptable.

I’ll admit firsthand that I didn’t read all 80 pages of the thesis, I was primarily interested in the methods, results, and discussion, as such I may have missed some of the finer points of Ms. Gourkow’s introduction. My personal interest was in the conclusions she drew based on the study design and how they could impact my own study design.

Four treatments were used in the study, which varied by complexity of cages (from a single animal in a barren cage to multiple cats in an enriched enclosure) and frequency/consistency of handling by shelter staff. I was primarily interested in the difference between singly housed cats compared with multiple cat housing.

I was pleased to see that this study only contained adult cats, as I’ve had concerns about the skewed adoption rate of kittens found more often in group housing in other studies. It was unfortunate that the handling effects could not be separated from the housing treatment in the analysis, however, it seems clear that either the consistent handling or cage enrichment had a large effect.

Where the cats in the single, barren, cage (standard) treatment experienced a 45% adoption rate, all of the other treatments had 74% or more adopted.

Did you read that? By adding a perch and hiding area (along with consistent handling) to a cat housed alone, they increased the number of cats adopted by 29%.

That’s an impressive change, however, I am more concerned with single vs. group housing, and thus was even more interested in what adopters listed as important criteria in their selection of a cat. The results clearly suggest that cats housed in groups have an advantage.

When it comes down to what adopters want to see in a cat, we can’t necessarily alter desirable traits such as “friendliness towards adopter,” “playfulness,” or “happy disposition.” But we can suppress other desirable traits by not providing opportunities for animals to exhibit them. The factors that I want to focus on are those that are enhanced or only provided through the use of group housing.

Being able to enter the cage with cats (74% of respondents)

Friendly with other cats (69%)

Able to view with other cats (52%)

Alternatively, while it may be essential for the cats’ mental well being, seeing perches and toys in cages was not very influential for adopters (38% or lower). These items may still play a large role in adoption rates due to other factors such as playfulness (86%) and reduction of fear behaviors (which dramatically increase euthanasia rates), but from a marketing and management standpoint, the easy change would be to house more cats in groups.

Arguments against housing cats in groups are primarily based on disease management. I recently read that roughly half of the cats in shelter environments become infected with contagious upper respiratory disease during their stay, and my own anecdotal experience supports that percentage. The article here, however, showed no difference in animals quarantined or euthanized due to illness between single and group treatments.

Another argument suggests that strange cats experience more stress when placed together, but Kessler and Turner along with Ms. Gourkow both reveal that space per cat plays a larger role in mitigating that stress, and that after a certain period stress levels become similar across all groups.

The picture that I’m beginning to piece together from these papers is that cats that are housed in groups are more desirable and consistently enjoy higher adoption rates. To use this information, I would hope that shelters would incorporate more group housing, and select animals for limited space based on adoptable attributes. I’ll continue exploring group housing’s influence on adoption rates, but now I’m interested in finding other traits that could make animals less desirable so that we can make placement decisions based on an animals marketable traits. The goal of this line of thinking being: if we can increase adoption rates for our less adoptable animals, can we reduce euthanasia rates overall?

Edit: I found the published version of the study featured in this thesis, and added the citation below.

ResearchBlogging.org

Nadine Gourkow (2001). FACTORS AFFECTING THE WELFARE AND ADOPTION RATE OF CATS IN AN ANIMAL SHELTER University of British Columbia

N Gourkow, & D Fraser (2006). The effect of housing and handling practices on the welfare, behavior and selection of domestic cats (Felis sylvestris catus) by adopters in an animal shelter Animal Welfare, 15, 371-377

Do cats in shelters acclimate faster if given a bunkmate?

Lucy is currently up for adoption at Heartland Humane Society (Corvallis) and is housed singly.

This article is one of many that I’m currently reviewing to build the introduction for the original research I plan to complete this summer/fall. This is the first of several posts discussing shelter cats to come in the next several weeks.

This study by Kessler and Turner (1997) took a look at the stress levels of cats introduced to a shelter/boarding facility-type environment over the first two weeks of their stay, and cross-examined those housed alone, in pairs, and in groups. 45 homeless animals that had already been at the facilities for some time were selected as a control, and 140 animals staying for temporary boarding were observed for the first two weeks of their stay.

Overall, the authors were able to conclude that in a two week stay, two-thirds of the cats acclimated very well, and after two weeks their stress levels, while still higher, were very comparable to the control. They suggest that other options be explored by the owners of the other third, with a special emphasis on the 4% of the cats who were extremely stressed even after a two week stay.

I endorse this wholeheartedly as I often watched animals for owners as a job when I was much younger. While they may be given more brief human contact, working out a deal with a house-sitter or neighbor to take care of your pets while you are away can be much less stressful for them than if they are placed in an unfamiliar environment with strange people and animals. You reduce their risk of exposure to disease, and help some young lad save money for college (I did…though some of it bought movie popcorn).

The more surprising conclusion was that housing the cats singly, pairs, or groups appeared to have no influence on the stress levels of the animals. There appears to be a slightly faster decline in stress for group housed cats on the authors’ graph, however it isn’t addressed, and the difference is minimal.

The conclusions have merit, but I have several problems with the selection of control animals in this study, namely, the fact that they aren’t representative of the experimental group. The biggest problem is that only homeless shelter cats were used for the control, and only boarding cats for the experimental group, where  either all homeless shelter cats or all boarding cats should have been included. The second large flaw I see is that all of the control animals were housed in groups of 6 to eight, effectively ruining any comparisons you may want to make when looking at the other housing situations. In a study named Stress and Adaptation of Cats (Felis silvestris catus) Housed Singly, in Pairs, and in Groups, you would think the control would use all of those situations.

The authors briefly mentioned the stress caused by cats that may be less social, or housed with familiar animals versus strangers, but were unable to control those factors with the way the data was collected and prepared. When it comes down to it, the control group just wasn’t…controlled. They were unable to fully examine how quickly single or pair cats acclimated to the boarding facility because you couldn’t compare them to a control cat in the same situation.

Kessler and Turner have another study (1999) examining stress levels of shelter cats in terms of animal density and cage size. Interestingly enough, they found that group density was “highly correlated with the stress level of animals housed in groups”, indicating that we should have seen some differences from the study above as well. That research was done two years after the 1997 study, so perhaps the authors also thought that those questions remained unanswered from the original study. I’ll be looking out for some newer research on the subject and may chime in on it again soon.

 

ResearchBlogging.org

M R Kessler, & D C Turner (1997). Stress and Adaptation of Cats (Felis Silvestris Catus) Housed Singly, in Pairs and in Groups in Boarding Catteries Animal Welfare, 6, 243-254

M R Kessler, & D C Turner (1999). Effects of Density and Cage Size on Stress in Domestic Cats (Felis Silvestris Catus) Housed in Animal Shelters and Boarding Catteries Animal Welfare, 8, 259-267

 

If you’re interested in the cat featured in this post, head on over to Heatland Humane Society to meet him!

Do organic animal operations encourage management decisions that negatively impact animal welfare? Part 3

Here’s the final portion of my paper: Do organic animal operations encourage management decisions that negatively impact animal welfare?

If you’ve missed the other posts, you can check out part 1, part 2,  or read the entire paper here.

 

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Conflict Between the Organic Approach and Welfare Ideals
Despite measures taken to promote prevention, a certain amount of disease is permissible in a healthy ecosystem and the restrictions placed on organic producers by both their certification requirements and ethos can create dilemma’s that could potentially harm animals. Several classic examples of species specific situations have been examined where the animal welfare approach taken by organic producers can be considered detrimental to the animal.

It should be noted that while there is evidence that there is a reluctance to use prohibited medications and chemicals to treat disease on organic farms (Vaarst and Bennedsgaard, 2001), both the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) and IFOAM standards explicitly state that organic livestock producers must not withhold medical treatment from a sick animal in an effort to preserve that animals organic status (IFOAM, 2005; National Archives and Records Administration, 2012a; Riddle, 2008, 2012).
Dairy
Management of mastitis in organic dairies is a commonly discussed example of when health of the individual and a reluctance to accept the financial loss associated with antibiotic use can potentially harm the animal. Herd health, in general, has not been shown to be significantly different between organic and conventional dairy herds, and some data suggests that the incidence of disease may actually be lower in organic herds, though the reasons for this are unknown (Lund and Algers, 2003; Lund, 2006). Interestingly, the ban on antibiotics for clinical use is more of a concern within U.S. boarders, as the majority of certification standards in the European Union allow antibiotic use to treat clinical disease without jeopardizing the organic status of the animal (Ruegg, 2009). However, the strict FDA guidelines for organic milk production not only prohibit the use of antibiotics in organic livestock, but do not allow the use of any compounds with an antimicrobial effect that are not approved by the FDA for organic production (National Archives and Records Administration, 2012a). Currently, there are zero antimicrobials approved for use in organic animals (Ruegg, 2009). This leaves organic dairy producers extremely limited in their options for treatment when faced with a cow that has mastitis. With few options available, Zwald et al. (2004) were able to find that farmers who switched to organic production began to seek information on treatments from other organic farmers as opposed to veterinarians. This trend is not seen in countries where antibiotic options are available to organic dairy farmers (Hamilton et al., 2006).

So what options are available to organic dairy producers in the U.S.? Once again, prevention is key, but research has shown that rates of mastitis are similar between organic and conventional dairy operations (Lund and Algers, 2003; Lund, 2006). This indicates that treatment must be part of a management plan, even if the organic ethos prevents any attempts to interfere with natural processes through antimicrobial intervention. Certain drugs are available for use on the CFR’s approved substances list with increased withdrawal times to maintain the high standards expected in organic milk production (Riddle, 2008; National Archives and Records Administration, 2012a). These drugs include certain anti-inflammatory drugs that would be useful in treating fever and inflammation associated with mastitis. Beyond pharmaceuticals, therapeutic care including frequent milking is a recognized way to discourage bacterial growth within the affected quarters. Combined with approved anti-inflammatory drugs, frequent milking and supportive care constitutes a common mastitis treatment on organic dairies in the United States (Ruegg, 2009).

Many organic farmers will also attempt to utilize complementary and alternative medicines; however, almost all of the products available have not been evaluated in peer reviewed studies for efficacy. Immunoboost, a USDA licensed immune stimulant sold in the U.S., has been evaluated but has not shown to have any significant effect on the treatment of mastitis (Ruegg, 2009). Other various remedies including peppermint, aloe, and garlic have been utilized by organic farmers as intramammary treatments, however the efficacy of these options is doubted, and their use is prohibited by the FDA (National Archives and Records Administration, 2012a). It appears that without recovery using simple supportive care, any medical intervention necessary to prevent unnecessary pain or distress for non-responsive mastitis cases will result in the loss of a producing animal for that organic operation. This creates a potential welfare risk, as the USDA organic requirements do not specify a point when prohibited treatments must be used, and the decision to discontinue organic treatment resides solely with the farmer.
Poultry
Poultry producers face a distinctive management change when converting to organic as free choice medicated feeds containing antibiotics are commonly used to manage disease and promote growth (Love et al., 2010). Organic poultry is also currently under increased pressure from consumers (Love et al., 2012) to provide a safe and antibiotic free product, which could indicate an increased reluctance to treat conditions using pharmaceuticals. Following the prevention management strategy, organic poultry producers may use a variety of feed supplements including probiotics, prebiotics, organic acids, and plant extracts that have had minimal and sometimes contradictory efficacy reviews (Griggs and Jacob, 2005). Once again, treatment needs to be a key part of the management strategy of the organic producer, and the increased public scrutiny over medication use in poultry has the potential to encourage famers to withhold medication as has been shown in other species (Lund, 2006).

One of the most contested animal welfare debates surrounding organic poultry is regarding the space required by the USDA regulations to remain organic (Kijlstra and Eijck, 2006). While the law only requires year-round access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean water for drinking, and direct sunlight (appropriate for the species, age, and climate) (National Archives and Records Administration, 2012a); organic farmers have adopted the term “free-range”, which unfortunately like the word “natural,” has no legal meaning. Nonetheless, open access to runs follows the third of Frasier et al.’s welfare ideals in allowing chickens to exhibit natural behaviors and thus have better welfare. The trade-off, however, is that while we have defined the major focus of disease management in organic operations as prevention based, free ranging chickens are more susceptible to predation, outbreaks of cannibalism, parasite exposure, coccidiosis and ascarid infections, and interactions with wild fowl that transmit dangerous diseases such as avian influenza (Verhoog et al., 2004; Kijlstra and Eijck, 2006; Lund, 2006). In order to keep with organic standards, all of these animals must continue to have access to the outdoors, and prohibited pharmaceuticals cannot be fed to treat outbreaks of disease or treat the higher rate of parasites that are found on organic operations (Lund, 2003). Clearly, should there be an outbreak of disease or cannibalism, an ethical dilemma is created between the first two ideals concerning the physical and mental needs of the animal, and the third to maintain natural conditions.

The various dilemmas discussed indicate that organic producers face additional pressure, both financially and in public relations, to avoid the use of treatments that would compromise the organic status of that animal. However, prioritizing animal welfare to include aspects beyond the scope of the clinical health of individual animals can potentially change the way welfare is perceived by conventional farmers and the general public. If an ecocentric rather than an individualistic perspective is considered, and positive experiences can be provided for the animal by indulging its natural behaviors and ecological niche, perhaps some stress events like occasional infections are an acceptable trade-off. Given that a higher incidence of disease has not been found, and that organic producers are required by law not to restrict care to maintain an organic status, it can be determined that organic livestock production does not encourage decisions that negatively impact animal welfare. However, it is recommended U.S. should adopt the EU policy of allowing antibiotics to be used in clinical cases without removing the organic status of that animal. With adequately increased withdrawal times in place to reflect the strict requirements that define organic products and enough consumer education, the organic market should recognize and accept the benefits of this policy change. Livestock would benefit by receiving more aggressive medical intervention as financial pressure not to treat animals could be alleviated as it has been in the EU (Ruegg, 2009), and having prescription antibiotics available as a treatment option could encourage more contact with veterinarians instead of neighbors to discuss animal health. Additional research is needed to support this position that could come from data determining if financial and public pressure are enough to encourage farmers to withhold treatments. In that case, additional actions such as stricter enforcement of the law may be necessary to promote a higher standard of care for organic animals.

Do organic animal operations encourage management decisions that negatively impact animal welfare? Part 2

Here’s the second portion of my paper: Do organic animal operations encourage management decisions that negatively impact animal welfare?

You can find part 1 here, or read the entire paper here.

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Welfare from an Ecocentric Perspective
Animal welfare has always been and remains to be an important goal in organic operations (Riddle, 2005; IFOAM, 2005); however, organic producers are still questioned on the welfare status of their animals because of their organic certification. Among the many definitions intended to quantify animal welfare, Frasier et al. (1997, p.187) provide three basic animal welfare ideals:

1. The animal should feel well, corresponding to the concepts of experience, feeling, interest, and preference.
2. The animal should function well, corresponding to the concepts of need and clinical health.
3. The animal should lead a natural life through the development and exercise of its natural adaptations, corresponding to the concept of the “innate nature” of the animal.

In general, livestock in conventional settings have their welfare measured using the first two ideals, with the most emphasis placed on the second. Producers are first and foremost concerned with the prevention of disease that could hurt production or cause unnecessary pain; humane slaughter laws are designed to prevent excess excitement and discomfort (National Archives and Records Administration, 2012b), and welfare audits for slaughter facilities are designed to reduce animal stress prior to slaughter (Grandin and Johnson, 2006). Using these criteria, it becomes clear how viewing welfare through the first two of Frasier’s ideals might suggest organically raised animals could have poorer welfare. It has been shown that organic farms have a higher rate of parasite-related disease (Lund and Algers, 2003), and the use of veterinary drugs is strongly suggested to be a last resort after alternative methods have been exhausted (IFOAM, 2005). There is also a financial incentive, as once antibiotics have been given to an animal, that animal cannot return to organic production (Riddle, 2008; National Archives and Records Administration, 2012a).

Through the naturalistic perspective however, welfare for organic producers can depend much less on the first two ideals, and more weight is placed on the third. This viewpoint changes the significance of the risks involved in many organic practices, such as free range housing, as both organic producers and consumers emphasize the third ideal as a priority (Alroe et al., 2001; Lund, 2006). Additionally, the ecocentric perspective further lowers the emphasis on the first two, as disease and parasites are both considered healthy parts of a larger ecosystem, and the health of the ecosystem is crucial to the health of the herd and the sustainability of the farm. This idea of looking past the individual is what causes dispute when quantifying animal welfare on the organic farm. Most producers, veterinarians, USDA inspectors, and animal owners evaluate animal welfare at the level of the individual, whereas the ecocentric organic producers are more likely to evaluate welfare at the level of the flock/herd, within the herd’s role in the overall ecosystem. At this level, a few animals in poor health are acceptable in a natural ecosystem where small amounts of disease are permissible. The ecocentric view disallows an attempt to alter a healthy system determined by nature by eradicating this small population.

Because animal welfare may be determined using more qualitative criteria in an organic operation, how do organic producers react to poor welfare or illnesses of individual animals? Organic producers hold the health of their animals high in their priorities (IFOAM, 2005; Riddle 2005), so they must be able to maintain a standard of herd health not only for the benefit of their animals, but to keep production high. As part of the naturalness or ecocentric ethos, organic producers believe that farmers should not try to take control of the environment, as conventional techniques do, but work hand in hand with nature. Thus, any method used to completely eradicate disease through the use of chemicals or medications does not promote a sustainable ecosystem, as it reveals an attempt to control the environment rather than work to bring the ecosystem back into balance (Verhoog et al., 2003). Therefore, prevention becomes key, and the U.S. organic requirements mandate preventative practices that emphasize working with nature such as selection of species and type of livestock that are appropriate to the site and resistant to prevalent disease, provision of a sufficient organic feed ration, and the use of appropriate housing, pasture management, and sanitation protocol to minimize the occurrence of pathogens (Riddle, 2008).

 

New Research: Do organic animal operations encourage management decisions that negatively impact animal welfare? Part 1

For my senior ethics class, I chose to write about an issue everyone has an opinion on, from granola folks at the co-op telling me to watch Food Inc. to farmers complaining about the outbreak of upper respiratory disease from those untreated organic herds sneezing over the fence. I actually ended up changing my own views quite a bit following the extensive research I did, and I really enjoyed writing the paper. I wanted to evaluate the claims often made to me by professors in my land grant school (Oregon State) about the misleading advertizing and hidden evils of organic production, and I wanted to see if there was anything to back up the fanaticism and devotion sometimes projected by organic devotees. This paper is by NO MEANS an exhaustive review of the literature, and I am not qualified to make any official judgement, and is simply meant to be a personal commentary from a recent graduate.

So rather than sit here blathering, the first portion is below, and you can read the full paper here.

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Few agricultural debates come close to generating the same passionate and heated responses that organic farming seems to elicit. The discussion surpasses the interests of producers with conflicting ideologies to be hotly debated by assertive consumers as well; people who highlight the paradox created by their interest in the safe and responsible production of their food, while avoiding all involvement in its creation. The originally proposed Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 received nearly 300,000 comments on the proposed requirements, more than any other piece of legislation in history (Vos, 2000). Clearly this indicated that the role organic farming played in food production was extremely important to U.S. citizens then, and continues to be a relevant topic as organic operations have grown by 40-50% every five years since 1992 (USDA, 2010).

The general public also has a strong interest in the way animals are managed, especially when management techniques play a role in the health or well-being of the animals prior to their use for meat, milk, or eggs. Humane management is often brought up when discussing the merits or flaws of organic operations, and is extremely important to producers due to the important role animal welfare plays when consumers make purchasing decisions. Prickett et al. (2010) found through the use of a telephone survey that 49% of consumers consider the well-being of farm animals when purchasing meat, and 83% of consumers disagree that lower prices are more important than the well-being of the animals used. These numbers become critical when organic producers need to justify the increased cost of their products and conventional producers are forced to avoid the alternate impression that their animals are treated poorly.
Marketing pressure placed on both groups leads to a vicious back and forth of both valid questions and vague accusations, among which is the suggestion that organic farms can act as reservoirs of disease (Kijlstra and Eijck, 2006). One mechanism for this accusation could be the avoidance of chemical or synthetic intervention for pest control and treatment of disease. This paper seeks to evaluate organic farming ideologies and legal constraints that create ethical dilemmas surrounding animal welfare, and determine whether organic management encourages decisions that are detrimental to the animals involved.

Animal Welfare and the Organic Movement
Early organic movements were created with the goal that a more sustainable and environmentally friendly farming system could be created that would benefit not only farmers and consumers of organic products, but also the animals within this system (Lund, 2006). These ideals have persevered and are a common talking point in promotional materials that market organically raised animals as drug and chemical free, and much closer to a “natural” condition (Riddle, 2005). This concept of “natural” is commonly used to differentiate organically produced animal products from conventional ones.

Utilizing the word “natural” creates an issue of perception; while the public widely accepts “natural” as a product descriptor, the word itself has no legal definition when used in food advertizing or packaging in the U.S. However, consumers have been shown to associate descriptions of “naturalness” not only with animal welfare but sustainability and care for the environment (Verhoog et al., 2003). While this may imply a scheme to sway consumer loyalty, the word is widely accepted by organic producers as an accurate descriptor to differentiate organic methods from conventional. While “natural” can have broad definitions like including the entire universe or everything untouched by man (thus either removing agriculture or providing no distinctions in practice), Verhoog et al. (2004) were able to show that organic producers feel organic can be classified as more natural than conventional agriculture as its aim is to be harmoniously integrated into nature. In this way nature is seen as a teacher or model for sustainable and humane agriculture. This ethos pushes organic farmers into an ecocentric approach when making management decisions. From this perspective, we begin to see how organic farmers may view welfare differently than conventional farmers or veterinarians.

Read the rest of the paper here.

 

ResearchBlogging.org
Vonne Lund, & Bo Algers (2003). Research on animal health and welfare in organic farming—a literature review Livestock Production Science, 80 (1-2), 55-68 : 10.1016/S0301-6226(02)00321-4

Badger culling in the U.K. – step one: cull badgers, step two: …?, step three: profit!

Image from BBC News

A friend of mine thought this would interest me when I last visited him, and I had him send me the links discussing badger culling in the UK to control the spread of bovine tuberculosis (Mycobacterium bovis).  In addition to having an economic impact,  bovine TB also carries a zoonotic concern. I thought I would learn more about the issue, and see what the literature says about the success of the program.

Badger culling has been a part of TB control in the United Kingdom since 1973. Despite this and other programs in place, incidence of TB has only increased during that time. In the thousands of biological and environmental risk factors that have been associated with TB infection risk, Badgers have been identified as an important reservoir and potential vectors for the disease.

The politics surrounding the issue are interesting, and provides a great case example of how public perception can be skewed for certain species. The regular players are all there: the economically invested (in this case, cattle farmers and associated industries), the scientific community, outspoken animal interest groups, a generalized public perception, and the federal government trying to cater to the majority of voters (or campaign contributors, depending on the official and your own opinion). Lets break down these players.

The Economically Invested

On this issue, everyone seems to be on board that bovine TB is a problem in the UK. The ones who really care though are cattle producers, meat and dairy processing companies, and the retail ends associated with those products. When oppositional parties want to discredit this group, we see them described as “big corporations” only concerned about the bottom line. These claims are many times true, as even the small farmer has to maintain a decent profit margin to provide for him or herself. This group tends to be less publicly oppositional, preferring to exercise their strength through advertizing, lobbying, and funding research that can help support their position. Within this issue, I wasn’t able to find any ads produced by organizations in the UK, however, I did find some farmer concerns over the issue. One was the difficulty in getting approved for a badger cull in your area, and the other was the fear of response from activist groups if they did choose to participate in the program. The position of the farm interest groups is that the spread of bovine TB is an animal welfare and economic concern, and that badger culling will be critical in suppression of the disease. Local wildlife can often aid transmission of disease; however, we have also seen blame placed incorrectly on wildlife in other situations.

Animal Interest Groups

There are many groups in the UK that advocate for Animal interests, and they’re pretty much unanimous in the opinion that culling badgers is not an effective or ethical way to combat bovine TB prevalence. However, they do have different techniques in approaching opposition. While many of them strictly condemn the practice and advertize to sway public opinion, one group (with the support of many others), Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, has been independently vaccinating wild badgers for bovine TB. At this time they haven’t investigated the effectiveness of the vaccine itself, but rather the economical viability of the process. Their results so far have shown that it would cost more than twice as much to vaccinate an entire hectare instead of culling. Typically these same groups in other controversial situations are very politically active.

The General Public

Generally the least informed and (arguably) the most powerful, the majority of public opinion represents the majority of voters and consumers. Regarding badger culling however, most of the general public has been shown in polls to oppose the practice. Agricultural controversies are often represented by government and industry actions that don’t necessarily mirror consumer or public preference, but instead are economically viable. Whether it’s often advocated for or not, above all else the majority of the public wants inexpensive food, and that benefit often outweighs other consumer preferences (though not always). An interesting examination of the public perception of badgers is discussed within this controversy, and this argument can also apply to other similar situations we have seen over the years. BBC explored the role of badgers in popular children’s stories, and related them to other species that receive special protection even if they are not endangered. An example from the states would be our attachment to wild horses as an icon of America, and some of the debates we’ve seen surrounding not only control of wild horses, but within discussions on using horses for food. Kevin Pierce from the article sums this feeling up well:

“It’s an image issue. A lot of farmers like badgers but we also want to control the disease. If your vector spreading TB was a rat, I’m sure that there’d be no problem for farmers in securing a license to take action.”

The Government

Tasked with the burden of trying to please everyone, the federal government often responds to the loudest collective voice along with their own advisers, analysts, and ethics. In this case, we do know that the government has moved forward with culling as they have in the past. Evaluating the motivation behind these decisions is an endless discussion, whether it’s a working system or corrupt is beyond the scope of this post. Feel free to express your opinions on the process in the comments below. The best I hope for is that while looking out for my interests, my officials attempt to remain objective, and speaking of objectivity…

The Scientific Community

I’ve left us for last. The example of objectivity and a lens of evidence to weigh a cost-benefit analysis of the issue not directed by personal interests, concepts of morality, or hidden goals. Or so we would hope. As a realistic scientist who has read a lot of peer-reviewed research, I know that we are never truly objective. All funding comes from somewhere, we interpret our own results, and while we try as hard as we can to be objective, there is no perfect experimental design immune to bias. However, as creator of this site, I obviously hold research in high esteem, so lets look at some of the literature regarding the effectiveness of badger culling in curbing the spread of bovine TB.

According to the sources I found, it appears that badger culling does have a positive effect on the rates of bovine tuberculosis, but strictly within the areas the culling occurs. There’s a beneficial cumulative effect after several years of a culling program (in the reduction of detrimental effects in surrounding areas), but it isn’t necessarily lasting, cost-effective, or repeatable in different situations. The consensus amongst several studies is that localized culling actually increases TB rates in the surrounding areas, due to the displacement of normally local badger populations, and additional factors that we don’t fully understand. Given these effects, there seems to be a general consensus in the literature I viewed that at best badger culling is not a cost effective way to reduce TB transmission, and at worst contributes to the spread of disease.

Culling programs always have fierce opposition from many sources, whether it be culling sea lions to protect Columbia river salmon, culling grey wolves to protect livestock, or culling tame geese that are causing damage to city parks. There are serious concerns from conservationists and animal activists about the effectiveness of such programs that can be well founded, and the controversy surrounding badger culling in the United Kingdom is a clear example  of why these decisions would be more effective if they are backed by empirical research and economic analysis before being presented as a moral dilemma.

ResearchBlogging.org
Donnelly CA, Woodroffe R, Cox DR, Bourne J, Gettinby G, Le Fevre AM, McInerney JP, & Morrison WI (2003). Impact of localized badger culling on tuberculosis incidence in British cattle. Nature, 426 (6968), 834-7 PMID: 14634671
Donnelly CA, Wei G, Johnston WT, Cox DR, Woodroffe R, Bourne FJ, Cheeseman CL, Clifton-Hadley RS, Gettinby G, Gilks P, Jenkins HE, Le Fevre AM, McInerney JP, & Morrison WI (2007). Impacts of widespread badger culling on cattle tuberculosis: concluding analyses from a large-scale field trial. International journal of infectious diseases : IJID : official publication of the International Society for Infectious Diseases, 11 (4), 300-8 PMID: 17566777
Donnelly CA, Woodroffe R, Cox DR, Bourne FJ, Cheeseman CL, Clifton-Hadley RS, Wei G, Gettinby G, Gilks P, Jenkins H, Johnston WT, Le Fevre AM, McInerney JP, & Morrison WI (2006). Positive and negative effects of widespread badger culling on tuberculosis in cattle. Nature, 439 (7078), 843-6 PMID: 16357869

Newsworthy: Branding and Microchips

Veterinary ethics are especially touchy and complex because the general public often has strong opinions on every animal issue, including: euthanasia, animal welfare, animal rights, cosmetic surgery, private breeding, puppy mills, spaying and neutering, pit bulls, leash laws, animals as food, veal, genetic engineering, hormone use, vaccination, preventative care, training techniques, feral cats, dogs and livestock, licensing, service animals, classroom animals, TV animals, animal research, animal testing, animal waste, grazing on public lands, raw-food diets, alternative medicine, hunting, population control, use of animals in sports, no-kill shelters, captive wild animals, and a million others that people will vehemently defend their side on.

There are many on that list that I myself have strong opinions on, but its my responsibility as a scientist and my benefit as a debater to approach conflict on this issues as discussions, not arguments. I’m not always the best at it, but I pride myself on my willingness to be proven wrong. I like to think that when shown data, presented in a clear and unbiased way, I can base my decisions on all the information presented, rather than simply reject new opinions. Terry Etherton had a few great posts about communicating with non-scientists, and how there’s a need to reach out even when you receive a poor response. This isn’t just a scientist vs. the lay public thing, this is for anyone who wants to be part of a productive discussion of these issues. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but unless we listen to each other and work toward middle ground, nothing ever gets done.

Image from howstuffworks.com

With my little editorial finished, lets jump into this article on branding and microchip use in foals.

“For animal welfare reasons, many veterinarians are currently promoting the method of implanting a microchip over the traditional practice of branding, while officials of major sport horse breed registries deny that branding really causes pain or stress to foals.” (ScienceDaily, 2011)

I’m a big promoter of microchipping, it’s hardly an invasive procedure, and causes little more pain than a vaccine. At my animal shelter, almost all microchipped animals we received were reunited with owners, as long as the chip data was current. They’re especially great for cats, who have a knack of removing collars with identification information when lost, and are more likely not to carry identification in the first place. The data shows that microchipped animals are much more likely to be returned home from shelters than non-microchipped animals. I haven’t heard much about microchipping in large animals until now, but I can understand why there’s a debate there.

Microchipping would be a difficult identifier in any large group of horses, as you need to get within inches of the animals, and there’s no way to simply view the identification. Ear tagging is unwanted aesthetically in horses, which leaves branding as a useful permanent mark. Freeze branding is an option the article doesn’t discuss, but it’s expensive, not always recognized by the state, and will be less visible depending on the animal’s color. The University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna has done a study concluding that hot branding causes more long term stress from the injury, assuming that the short term stress is mostly due to restraining procedures the foals must go through to be microchipped or branded. The fact remains however, that branding in many ways is superior to microchipping depending on the management of the animals.

The counter argument to using microchips is further strengthened by the comparing the procedure to other common practices with foals. Castration, tail docking, and (in cattle) polling can be considered far more traumatic, and have similar debatable merits depending on the management strategy. The article also mentions a tradition component that it doesn’t elaborate on. Many county fairs have branding competitions and branding is often made into an event in rural areas, implying that the tradition of branding animals has a cultural component independent of animal welfare.

While branding may be more stressful for the animals, I do not think that microchipping is an adequate replacement as the only means of identification in large animals. The specific purpose microchips serve well in companion animals doesn’t translate into the same needs we have for livestock. Hopefully another solution will eventually be available, but for now it seems that the use of brands, ear tags, and microchips will be determined by management, not its effect on the animal.

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

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.