Think positive

It used to be that when I talked to the public about my work as an animal welfare scientist, they would think that I was a vet, or that I worked with vets to ensure animals had good health. These days, I am pleased to say that animal welfare is a much more mainstream concept.

People now generally understand that it equates to more than just health, and that the animal’s mental state and environment comes into it too. The bar is still set too low though. Good animal welfare is often considered to be just about removing, or minimising, negative experiences and emotions, such as fear, stress and pain. I, and an increasing number of animal welfare scientists, believe that there is more to welfare than this. Good animal welfare is about ensuring that an animal has the opportunity for positive experiences and emotions, such as pleasure and play, appropriate social interactions, grooming opportunities, and sometimes even gentle, tactile contact. To achieve this, we need to get into the mind of the animal, and ask them what makes them happy. This isn’t always easy, but science is getting there. There is already a wealth of scientific studies focussed on asking animals what their preferences are, how they communicate, and more recently, how they express these positive emotions.

Understanding the emotional states of cows

Over the last few years, my colleague Gemma Carder and I have been ‘thinking cow’, looking at ways to measure the emotional states of dairy cows. The purpose of our studies were to find practical measures of emotions that could be used by farmers, assessors, and vets to reliably assess the emotional wellbeing of cows. Existing measures such as heart rate variability and cortisol levels can be useful, but they often require the animal to be handled, or rely upon post-analysis for the results. Such methods are also strongly biased towards negative states in animals. In our studies, we explored the suitability of ear postures, nasal temperatures and visible eye whites as measures of emotions in cattle. Over the years we have looked at various emotional states; frustration, relaxed, and excitement. We found that all three of the measures told us something about the cattle’s emotional state and have the potential to be useful measures in practice. As with most things, context is required to ensure that the measures could be used appropriately. We found however, that in terms of measuring a cow’s response to an emotional stimulus, eye whites, ear postures and nasal temperatures show great promise.

Since I have begun my research into animal sentience, and specifically my work with cattle, I have seen a notable growth in scientific articles focussing on positive emotions in animals. This is fantastic to see. In my work as a freelance animal welfare scientist I work with charities and industries all over the world. Often, it is difficult just to get animals to a state of adequate welfare, as their conditions can be so poor, basic health care and nutrition aren’t even provided. In such circumstances the concept of good animal welfare and considering positive emotions feels like a luxury, far out of reach. I do still feel however, that there should still be a concern for the positive aspects of an animal’s life. It often doesn’t cost any more, and can be incorporated easily when making small changes to an animal’s environment and the practices they are involved in. It just requires us to reframe how we think about needs. After all, who are we to say what constitutes a life worth living?

If you need scientific support, such as evidence building, literature reviews, or expertise on animal sentience and positive welfare, drop me a line or visit my website for more details.

Further reading

Edgar, J. et al., 2013. Towards a “Good Life” for Farm Animals: Development of a Resource Tier Framework to Achieve Positive Welfare for Laying Hens. Animals, 3(3), pp.584–605.

Green, T.C. & Mellor, D., 2011. Extending ideas about animal welfare assessment to include “quality of life” and related concepts. New Zealand veterinary journal, 59(6), pp.263–71.

Lambert, H. & Carder, G., 2016. Looking into the eyes of a cow: Can eye whites be used as a measure of emotional state? Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 186, pp.1–6.

Mellor, D., 2012. Animal emotions, behaviour and the promotion of positive welfare states. New Zealand Veterinary Journal, 60(1), pp.1–8.

Proctor, H. & Carder, G., 2016. Can changes in nasal temperature be used as an indicator of emotional state in cows? Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 184, pp.1–6.

Proctor, H.S., 2012. Animal Sentience: Where Are We and Where Are We Heading? Animals, 2(4), pp.628–639.

Proctor, H.S. & Carder, G., 2014. Can ear postures reliably measure the positive emotional state of cows? Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 161, pp.20–27.

Proctor, H.S. & Carder, G., 2015a. Measuring positive emotions in cows: Do visible eye whites tell us anything? Physiology & behavior, 147, pp.1–6.

Proctor, H.S. & Carder, G., 2015b. Nasal temperatures in dairy cows are influenced by positive emotional state. Physiology & Behavior, 138, pp.340–344.

Proctor, H.S., Carder, G. & Cornish, A., 2013. Searching for Animal Sentience: A Systematic Review of the Scientific Literature. Animals, 3(3), pp.882–906.