CANBERRA, Australia – Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) is researching ways to improve livestock welfare by developing scientific methods for assessing how animals 'feel' in response to common management practices. The intent of this research is to reduce stress and pain in livestock and increase not only their wellbeing but also their productivity.

“With increased public concern about the welfare of animals, and consumers seeking ‘animal welfare-friendly’ products, Australia’s livestock industries are focused on improving farming practices to meet changing expectations,” said Dr. Caroline Lee, CSIRO scientist. “It is also internationally recognized that we must quantify not only the biological cost but also the emotional cost of animals used for production of food and fiber. This requires new methods to benchmark the welfare of animals in their on-farm environment.”

Objective measurement of animal welfare is a relatively new science. Current methods largely focus on quantifying biological indicators of stress – for example, via blood tests that show changes in animals’ physiology or immune systems.

Animal-behavior studies have also been used to indicate obvious emotional states, such as pain or discomfort, or preferences for different foods. However, all of these studies provide relatively limited information.

“Until now, the major gap in our ability to assess animal welfare has been our capacity to understand the emotional states of animals in different farming situations, such as in intensive finishing systems or during droughts,” Lee said.

Lee, who is based at CSIRO Livestock Industries' research facility near Armidale, NSW, uses cognitive principles based on human psychological theories to assess animal emotions.

“The challenge is to gain insights – in a scientifically rigorous way – into how animals’ minds work,” she said. “This will take some time to work through and it is one of key areas of strategic science undertaken by CLI’s Livestock Welfare Team. Ultimately, the outcomes of this research will expand on our understanding of emotional and cognitive functions of livestock and the impacts of farming practices on animal welfare.”

This research is partly funded by Meat and Livestock Australia and undertaken in collaboration with Dr. Alain Boissy at the National Agronomy Research Institute in France.