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!

Newsworthy: University of Georgia is characterizing flock vocalizations as a stress indicator.

Hey all, taking a quick break from blogging as I’m busy with a personal research project I’ll report here on ASR soon, but I wanted to add a quick post for anyone subscribing to RSS or wondering if I’m still alive.

This article on ScienceDaily details a study going on at the University of Georgia, in which they’re recording flock vocalizations to find distinct patterns that can be associated with temperature levels, ammonia concentrations, and other detrimental environmental factors. This has possible implications not only for the welfare of the birds but for the efficiency of the operation.One example of a financial incentive that the article provided is that current ammonia detectors are expensive and short-lived, and if a computer instead could “listen” to the flock and identify specific vocalization changes related to ammonia levels those detectors could be made obsolete.

It’s a cool article, and an awesome example of how agriculture continues to keep up with technology. Check it out and I’ll be back to regular posting as soon as my other personal project is on it’s way!

Forgot to reformat that TPS report? Come pet my dog.

We’ve known for a long time that owning pets is good for us. They encourage exercise (Epping, 2011), lower blood pressure (Allen Et Al., 2002), and even reduce anxiety (Jerjes, 2007). So the question then is why wouldn’t we want to bring that to work?

From loldogs

This article looked at just that. In examining a large company with about 550 employees, and comparing their results to the standards of the industry, the authors found that the presence of a dog at work reduced stress for employees throughout the day. The impact was significant enough that not only did employees feel less stressed as the day progressed, but on days when the dog was absent, they experienced levels of stress above the industry standard by the end of the day.

So what are some of the potential HR concerns with having animals at work? One example would be the 20% of participants who perceived that dogs in the workplace hindered their personal productivity. Examples of employee complaints were:

“Some dogs are disruptive”

“Allergy problems for some”

“Dogs should be well behaved and quiet” (Barker, 2012)

The authors suggest that if company policy allows dogs, it should also address these reasonable concerns to maximize the benefit of the program. In this study those with concerns were actually equally matched in size with the the pro-dog population, and both were smaller than the neutral-dog population. This suggests that with the benefits conveyed, if these concerns can be addressed by policy or management of animals a dog-friendly workplace would have a net benefit for the majority of employees.

All employees reported higher scores than the industry standard for job satisfaction and communication. This communication benefit is attributed to the additional conversations between both peers and employees of different status created by the presence of the dogs. Both of these benefits are assumed to be a result of the general trend of reduced reported stress by all employees when dogs are present. Alternatively, all employees reported greater stress levels when those who normally brought their dogs to work left them at home.

Let me say that again, even those people who didn’t bring their dogs to work (or didn’t own one) were more stressed out when the dogs they were used to seeing at work were not present. This clearly shows that the benefits of pets in the workplace are not solely reaped by those who get to be with their personal pets all day.

Now this study (while cool) shouldn’t be an immediate argument for dogs in the workplace, and the results most certainly aren’t applicable to all industries. There are several limitations that the authors acknowledge and use to promote replication of the study. First, the sample size was small (76 employees), and unfortunately there was no real control. The data was compared to the reported industry standards, which make a great model, but comparing a single company against the average isn’t particularly significant to an industry. This company might just be above average regardless, and there was no way to compare the satisfaction of the employees prior to the dog policy. Finally, the authors were unable to conduct a blind study, meaning that participant bias may have been significant.

If I were to change anything in their procedure, it would be the cortisol sampling. The authors collected salivary samples from all participants every morning for the duration of the study, but did not see any trends in non-dog vs. dog present days, or in employees who brought dogs to work vs. those who left them at home. I’m surprised that they chose the morning portion of the day to collect saliva samples, as it would make much more sense to me to collect a sample at the end of the day, when the effects of the dogs’ presence or absence would have had time to affect stress and subsequently cortisol levels. Ideally, in the replication, they will collect samples twice a day, and be able to determine if the stress reported was real or perceived.

On a final note, I would be really interested to see a similar study looking at an industry where animals are naturally present, such as a shelter, veterinary clinic, or boarding facility. It would be interesting to see if the ability to bring your dog from home would convey additional benefits even when dogs or other animals would be present regardless.
ResearchBlogging.org

Allen K, Blascovich J, & Mendes WB (2002). Cardiovascular reactivity and the presence of pets, friends, and spouses: the truth about cats and dogs. Psychosomatic medicine, 64 (5), 727-39 PMID: 12271103

Randolph T. Barker, Janis S. Knisely, Sandra B. Barker, Rachel K. Cobb, & Christine M. Schubert (2012). Preliminary investigation of
employee’s dog presence on stress
and organizational perceptions International Journey of Workplace Health Management, 5 (1), 15-30

JN Epping (2011). Dog Ownership and Dog Walking to Promote Physical Activity and Health in Patients Current Sports Medicine Reports, 10 (4), 224-227

Jerjes W, Hopper C, Kumar M, Upile T, Madland G, Newman S, & Feinmann C (2007). Psychological intervention in acute dental pain: review. British dental journal, 202 (6), 337-43 PMID: 17384613

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

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.

Article Review: Sources of Stress in Captivity, Part II

Took me forever to get around to reading the rest of this article, this last term was pretty heavy. But nonetheless I haven’t forgotten about this thing, and it’s not like I have to keep an update schedule for my breathlessly waiting readers on here. So with that, let’s get back into it.

The second half of the article focused on more biotic and behavioral stressors, still mostly from a zoo perspective. This half was much more interesting, as the abiotic factors discussed in the first half were pretty simple. That’s not to say that they weren’t well explored and there wasn’t any new information presented, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t hard for them to come to the conclusion that if we cook our captive animals on concrete on a hot day that it’ll cause stress. One of the neatest things when they were examining behavioral stress was that they always identified when a certain stressor was used as the definition of stress in other studies. Things such as separation from conspecifics and invasive handling were not only examined, but identified as the state of being “stressed” in other studies.

Both at the beginning and the end of this section they really hit the nail on the head for stress in capitivity.

“…the primary difference between such stimuli in nature and the same stimuli in captivity is in the animal’s ability to control it’s exposure to these stimuli…confinement in captivity brings with it a host of other potential stressors, largely in the form of restricted choice” (Morgan and Tromberg, 2007)

Like in The Matrix, it’s a problem of choice. Whether that’s removal of the choice to retreat from people or animals, of feeding time and meal composition, of which animals it shares space with, of mate selection, and obviously of home range/habitat selection. That’s the reason for stress in captivity as broadly defined as it can be. It makes sense, but they touch upon it again later when they discuss the roles of predictability for environment enrichment. Animals when given a choice will chose a predictable schedule over unpredictability, but there are conflicting results as to which one provides more benefits. Novelty  has been shown to be necessary for environmental enrichment: the provision of toys in stall horses greatly reduces stall vices/stereotypies such as cribbing and swaying. Stereotypies are also reduced in pigs with long pieces of straw to chew (see Grandin for perspective on this behavior). Novelty comes up in the article when discussing controlled things such as feeding and cleaning times, and uncontrolled factors like the number and behavior of visitors to zoos.

Human contact is discussed thoroughly as a stressor and enrichment. Social and domesticated species have been shown to benefit greatly from human contact, however other species display obvious detrimental effects.

“In one review of black rhinocerous breeding success in US zoos, animal mortality was positively correlated with the degree of public access to the animals.” (Morgan and Tromberg, 2007)

The only real trend is that the effect of human contact creates wildly different effects based on its nature. If the contact is social or feed associated, it can be great, but across the board, negative contact whether in treatment, handling, or painful/invasive medical procedures will make future contact with people a negative and stressful experience. The article does take a moment to clarify what they thought created a pleasant experience.

“Part of what pleasant handling appears to involve is meeting the animal on its own terms.” (Morgan and Tromberg, 2007)

Grandin talks about this a lot with how animals approach novelty with caution. They enjoy novelty because it turns on the SEEKING blue ribbon emotion, but if that novelty moves beyond what they’re ready to explore, they crank on the FEAR emotion and the novel thing becomes stressful.

So, given everything examined, how do we fix it? That depends on your goals. If you want to create a zoo/farm that keeps the animals at the same stress level as them living in the wild, you better work at Yellowstone (and even then!). It’s really not going to happen. So let’s say we set some reasonable goals, like wanting to reduce pacing stereotypies in our larger animals. So, how do we identify the stressors in those enclosures?

“Many of the stressors reviewed above produce the same or very similar effects on animals…This ambiguity makes such behavioral and physiological responses unreliable symptoms for troubleshooting a given captive situation” (Morgan and Tromberg, 2007)

All we get is that something is wrong, but have no idea what. It’s like saying a person or animal has nausea, diarrhea, and fever. Helpful, we now know it could be one of a thousand issues that all cause those symptoms, more information is needed to make an appropriate diagnosis. In all honesty, other than some simple species specific observations, it comes down to individuals. Some will do better in captivity than others, and some will respond to changes you make to minimize stress better than others. The article mentions that if your goal is a conservation effort, captivity can promote learned helplessness, which results in the loss of adaptive coping strategies. There’s a lot of issues with conservation efforts: loss of genetic diversity (cheetahs), over-success (grey wolves), and loss of natural adaptability and wild behaviors (pandas). Learned helplessness can be useful or at least non-detrimental with respect to domesticated species, but anything you intend on reintroducing to the wild may have issues.

Perhaps (unless it’s a conservation effort) we should just resign ourselves to the fact that when we put animals in a zoo, we are domesticating them. Part of the lure of the zoo is to see wildlife in a controlled setting, but there’s an oxymoron there. Wildlife is out of our control, deer that have problems giving birth die, and predators won’t discriminate between a keystone species and other food options (oh if only we could keep all the salmon to ourselves). Maybe the new direction should be not to impersonate nature, but promote behaviors that inherently make zoo life less stressful for those animals. The article briefly mentions “contrafreeloading” behavior, in which animals will choose to work for a food reward even when it is offered freely. I want to bring up circus animals and how, even though many inhumane techniques have been used to teach them the tricks they do, many of them have been selected for their willingness to do a shapeable behavior or to work with items. We could be selecting our zoo animals for their willingness to participate with handlers and items, and we could provide enrichment through allowing them to work for their rewards. This is accepted with marine mammal exhibits where wild whales, dolphins, sea lions, and anything else we can seemingly fit in a tank receives enrichment in this way (not to say that swimming stereotypies still don’t exist). You can’t argue that we’re attempting to keep their wild habitat and behaviors with three shows a day jumping through hoops. I would need to read more on the subject to provide a supported discussion, but that’s my feeling. And that’s the end of that article, I highly recommend reading through it, but be prepared for a grind, it’s a long one.

Article Review: Sources of Stress in Captivity, Part I

I’ve been hanging onto this review of literature for a long time, it’s about 40 pages long, so I’ve slowly gotten about half way through in my spare time. I’ve decided to break down my thoughts into two posts, not only for the length of the article, but so that I don’t have to essentially write an essay all at once.

Most of the article is written from a zoo perspective, but they do take time to review bits of literature pertaining to domestic livestock. One of my favorite things about this article so far is how they chose to define stress and stressors.

“Stress will be defined as the experience of having intrinsic or extrinsic demands that exceed an individual’s resources for responding to those demands.”

“A ‘stressor’ is anything that challenges homeostasis…in this case may be an actual physical challenge to homeostasis (such as exposure to a sudden change in temperature, physical restraint, or combat) or the threat of such a challenge (such as a direct stare from a more dominant individual, or the approach of a human with handling gloves). In either case, stressors result in a cascade of physiological events designed to prepare the body for homeostatic challenge – the so-called ‘fight or flight’ response.”

I immediately read that first definition of stress and said to myself “yes, that’s what it is”. Mostly in terms of whenever I want to define how I feel stressed. But in reality, I was much more impressed with the definition provided because “stress” is such a catch all term for essentially anything wrong with an animal or it’s environment. I remember working at the animal shelter and being told that most of the diarrhea we saw in healthy cats and dogs in the shelter was a result of “stress.” While that may have been true in many cases, the employees, myself included, used the word stress to essentially explain any question proposed by visitors regarding abnormal behavior from the animals. We gave them the assumption that we knew something they didn’t, and usually the issue was dropped. Without a clear definition of what exactly “stress” meant to those shelter animals though, we had no way of asking the important question, what is causing this animal to be stressed?

We never thought, other than taking basic care of these animals to maintain health, hygiene, and human contact; about what we should be doing to keep them mentally sound. With all the behavior and minor health issues we crossed off as stress induced, we never made an attempt to cure that. It’s not that we didn’t care, but in hindsight it’s just something that wasn’t explored or audited. When I think about it now there was probably a lot of little things that we could have been done if we had just asked the question, instead of just assuming that all stress was inevitable.

I bring this up because I’m sure that other organizations, whether they be animal shelters, veterinary clinics, small farms, or large animal production facilities might have that same oversight. Just providing yourself with a concrete, identifiable definition of stress causes you to move onto the next big one, what are the stressors?

So far in the article I’ve read the sections on abiotic stressors, which included lighting, ambient temperature, sound (ranges and pressure), odors, and tactile interaction with the environment. These are actually harder to work with in my opinion, biotic factors are easier for us to understand and study from a physiological standpoint. Figuring out the umwelt of different species is something that Temple Grandin says she does by thinking in pictures, but I think it goes beyond that. The sheer amount of Olfactory cues that we can only observe animal reactions to tell me that the sensory overload our livestock animals receive every day is beyond something as simple as changing the lighting alone. It’s like explaining the instant assailment of information that flows into your mind when you look at a classroom. Or trying to explain how (literate) people can see words on highway signs and with a single look compute the meaning of those specific shapes. How can we get into the head of a cow and understand how that whiff of estrus urine translates into information?

Anyway, some of the bigger problems noted in the article were flicker rates in florescent lighting that animals can see, extremely high sound pressure in zoo and agricultural settings from both machinery and people (that doubles what would be found in a natural setting), and problems associated with the materials used to create habitats or bedding. As a potential start to a solution, at the end of the abiotic section they make recommendations on what sort of equipment (and where to get it) should be used to measure these factors and potential stressors. Identification of what we know is the first step, so that new options and unforeseen stressors become more obvious.

I’ll have much more to say on this article in part II, but I’ll leave these preliminary thoughts for now. Look for more on this from me soon.

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.