Funder and dates: BBSRC and RESAS, 2015 - ongoing
Collaborators/partners: SRUC and Roslin Institute
The concept of positive animal welfare has arisen relatively recently. There may be several reasons for this - (a) because the public tend to focus on positive aspects of animals lives and hence indirectly influence scientific and policy thinking about animal welfare; (b) advances in neuroscience creating understanding in and interest in how the brain generates sensations of pleasure; (c) human psychology where there is also similar interest in ‘positive psychology’ and ‘happiness'.
We are studying situations where animals appear to experience pleasure and how this might affect the animal, its group mates and human owners. For example we study play behaviour which occurs in pigs, sheep and cattle. Play behaviour is hard to study because it happens rather infrequently and involves very fast and complex movement (see Videos). However modern software allows us to capture these movements, and study this complex behaviour in greater detail than previously. Play is fascinating not least because it seems so clearly to suggest that animals are enjoying themselves when they play.
In one study we have shown that litters of pigs vary in how much they play (Figure 1, download full paper in Links section below).
We calculated that 50% of the variance in play was coming from the litter the piglets were reared in, whilst 11% of the variance came from individuals within litters. This is shown in Figure 1 where the horizontal bars show some litters playing considerably more than others; but at the same time individuals within litters varying in their play as well.
We are not exactly sure why some litters play more but the most likely explanation is that these litters are receiving more milk from their mothers. This is because there is a strong association (or correlation) between play and how fast litters grow (Figure 2). This finding is in line with studies of play in wild animals. For example young meerkats play more if they are given extra (supplemental) food (boiled eggs).
We are continuing to study play and similar behaviour to understand what benefits these positive behaviours bring to the animal.