Modern science as a pathway to animal welfare

Animal behaviour and welfare are major areas of public concern as production systems change and the ethics of food production become more important. It is also important when we consider how we interact with other animals, such as pets and wildlife.

Animal welfare is about the mental and physical state of an animal as it experiences and engages with the environment. This includes both positive and negative experiences, with animals having a good life when the balance of positive experiences is greater than negative.

A major challenge is to develop a better understanding of behavioural expressions of positive welfare (such as comfort, relaxation, pleasure) and adverse experiences (e.g. pain, fear, stress, hunger and aggression) in managed animals. This includes the genetic and epigenetic control pathways and neural mechanisms that underlie behavioural traits, the long term impacts of early life environment and the adaptations that animals have that allow them to cope with environmental challenges.

SRUC aims to develop objective measures of these behaviours and use these to assess and enhance animal welfare, including through introduction of ‘positive’ behaviours such as play and non-aggressive social interactions.

Our research

We are working to understand and interpret the behaviour of managed animals. This includes how expressing positive behaviour may impact on animal health and welfare, the impact of management on animal welfare, developing novel methods to assess animal behaviour and emotions, evaluating the role of sensors to record and understand animal behaviour, and focusing on individuals as well as groups of animals. We are also developing approaches to understand the impact of the behaviour of humans in interactions with animals, and methods to bring about human behaviour change for a positive impact on animal welfare.

Our areas of research and discovery include:

  • Identifying beneficial impacts of environmental enrichment on behaviour and frontal cortex gene expression in young pigs
  • Development and application of Qualitative Behavioural Assessment for on farm welfare assessment
  • Research on novel behavioural indicators of pain, methods to reduce pain and the longer term impact of painful procedures in farm animals
  • The expression of maternal care and impact of early life experiences, both positive and negative, on later behavioural development and reactivity
  • Use of technology/precision tools to manage animal behaviour and welfare on farms 
  • Understanding and assessing the emotional experience conveyed in facial expression in farm animals
  • Social network analyses and models of personality and aggression in farmed and managed animals
  • Evidence of the neurophysiological effects of low atmosphere pressure stunning and other novel culling methodologies in poultry and pigs

Using precision farming tools to improve animal welfare

Recent advances in sensor technology, machine learning and ‘big data’ methods has opened opportunities for more sensitive monitoring of animal behaviour and welfare that can provide information at an individual level. These methods can be applied to identify and track welfare of individual animals in the larger group, or to act as early warning systems before major welfare issues occur.

For example, our project, TailTech, is working with industry to develop the use of video imaging to detect changes in pig tail postures that predict the outbreak of tail-biting - a damaging behavioural response in pigs, which is often managed by the welfare problem of tail docking.     

We are also addressing the use of technology to manage welfare in other species, including cattle and sheep. Sensors on the animal, such as accelerometers, can produce algorithms that analyse behaviour in real time, and can send alerts when behaviours are abnormal, or when a particular signature is detected. We are working as part of a consortium in Europe to develop these technologies for the welfare management of small ruminants.

See the TechCare Project website for more information about this approach.    

Measuring animal emotional experience from body language

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Qualitative Behaviour Assessment app

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Social behaviour

Farmed animals are social, and need to be kept in social groups. However, farming practices such as moving and mixing animals can cause fighting and damaging aggression between animals. This is a particular problem with pigs, and we have a significant research effort involved in understanding why this occurs, and looking at ways to mitigate aggressive behavioural responses.

These studies have involved a range of approaches from understanding the genetic components of aggression, looking at early life development as a risk factor for increased aggression, using social network analysis to understand the complex social dynamics in a group of pigs, and investigating how pigs perceive other pigs when making decisions to fight. In addition, we have considered this from the farmer’s viewpoint, in terms of their views on pig aggression.

Offspring survival

Whether or not offspring survive is a crucial part of farm economics, and an unambiguous indicator of animal welfare. We have investigated the factors influencing offspring survival in pigs and sheep for many years, and the impact of how we manage females on farms in terms of maternal behaviour and offspring development.

Our research in maternal behaviour and offspring survival in sheep has characterised the different types of maternal behaviour shown, and studied some of the factors (such as undernutrition, age and experience) which can affect the quality of maternal care.

We used embryo-transfer to uncover that the behaviour or vigour of the newborn lamb is separate from maternal care and discovered that lamb behaviour played a vital role in its own survival. Our research has investigated the environmental and genetic factors that affect the behaviour of the lamb, and we continue to study the impact of the relationship between mother and young on offspring health, welfare and development.

We also addressed similar questions in pigs, and have had a particular focus on the environment in which the sow gives birth. This has demonstrated that the farrowing crate causes physiological stress in the sow, which is associated with her inability to be able to build a birth nest in this environment.

We have then investigated alternative accommodation for farrowing sows, designed to meet her behavioural needs, whilst still protecting her piglets. Our Free Farrowing research has led to the development of a resource to provide more information on alternatives to farrowing crates for the management of farrowing sows.

Human Behaviour Change for animal welfare

For managed animals, many of the welfare impacts come from human behaviour - either directly through fear of humans, and actions that we carry out (such as tail docking), or indirectly through management decisions that affect animal welfare (such as feeding decisions). This is true of our pet animals, as well as farm animals, and sometimes wildlife as well.

To bring about changes in animal welfare, often we need to also change the behaviour of their keepers or care-givers. This can be very difficult and our research has increasingly been conducted in collaboration with farmers and others, so that there is acceptance and agreement with approaches. We are also conducting social science research to understand what are perceptions and drivers for actions that can affect animal welfare. This data can be used to understand how we might develop interventions to change behaviour, and so to improve animal welfare.

Mothers Matter

Our work on the importance of managing the pregnant female has led to a campaign to encourage producers to consider the impact of management in pregnancy on maternal stress and offspring outcomes. Over the last two decades there has been considerable research, at SRUC and elsewhere, investigating how stress, ill health, sub optimal nutrition, environment and husbandry conditions can affect livestock species and their offspring.

Prenatal effects have been studied in sheep, pigs, cattle, poultry and farmed fish. Prenatal effects can be a hidden risk factor for many farm health and welfare outcomes, and a possible cause of poor performance in replacement animals.

SRUC started the ‘Mothers Matter’ campaign to draw attention to these issues and explain what the risks are.


Beef: Managing cows during pregnancy – leaflet
Sheep : Managing ewes during pregnancy – leaflet

'Mothers Matter' case study: Social mixing in pregnant pigs

Since the ban on gestation stalls (in the UK in 1999, and across Europe in 2013) group systems for pregnant sows are more common. However, group systems – depending on how they are managed – can result in some animals experiencing aggression and social stress.

A number of studies at SRUC and other institutions have shown that the experience of social stress due to mixing social groups during pregnancy can have various negative impacts on the resulting piglets.

For instance, piglets born to stressed mothers can be more stress reactive, grow more slowly following weaning, and show poor maternal behaviour (Jarvis et al 2006). They also show a greater behavioural reaction to the pain associated with tail docking (Rutherford et al 2009) and have altered reproductive development (Ashworth et al 2011).

How management of farm animals during pregnancy affects progeny health, welfare and productivity

an SRUC seminar by Dr Kenny Rutherford

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