Dr. Gosia Zobel with goats AgResearch

Study of animal personality, mood to give new welfare insights

Study could be used to compare how animals experience different farming situations and to improve design of production systems.

New research exploring the moods and personalities of farm animals is being seen as an opportunity to better understand and enhance their welfare, according to an announcement from New Zealand's AgResearch.

The research looks at how animals respond in new and different situations. It is the latest work by AgResearch’s Animal Welfare Team helping to expand the knowledge of livestock behavior, at a time of growing consumer demand for strong welfare standards. The work is being supported by DairyNZ as part of its ongoing focus on enhancing animal care for cows.

“We can’t directly measure how individual animals are feeling, so there is a need to find indirect measures, and that’s what we are seeking to do here,” AgResearch scientist Dr. Gosia Zobel said.

“Once we have those measures, we can use them to better understand how personality also contributes to an animal’s welfare. It is important that these measures can distinguish between different personalities in a range of situations, where animals are feeling either positive or negative.”

The first farm animals being studied are goats, as they are easy to work with, adaptable to human contact and there is good evidence for what goats find positive and negative, AgResearch said.

“In the research, we created a positive situation, which for goats is access to large leafy branches, while in contrast the negative situation was exposure to simulated rain,” Zobel said. “Immediately following these positive or negative experiences, we tested the goats’ response to different scenarios, including an object that is new to them.”

During these scenarios, the scientists collected detailed measurements of the goats’ responses, such as heart rate, slow-motion video of facial expressions and changes in temperature of different body regions with an infra-red camera.

“We predicted that individual goats would change their response to the scenarios depending on whether they were feeling positive or negative; however, each goat’s response would also be in a manner consistent with their personality," Zobel said. “So for example, a goat that has just experienced the rain (negative situation) might be more reluctant to approach a new object, but certain goats will always be bolder than others.”

Once the results have been analyzed and published, it will provide a stepping stone toward understanding and measuring both personality and mood of individual animals. This can then be used to compare how animals experience different farming situations and to improve the design of production systems, AgResearch said.

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