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Developing Lifetime Animal Welfare Assessment Tools

Using novel physiological measures of cumulative chronic stress.

  • Project Dates: 01 Oct 2016 to 30 Sep 2020
  • Project Leader: Dr Tom Smulders: Institute of Neuroscience
  • Staff: Tom Smulders, Tim Boswell, Jonathan Guy and Vicky Sandilands (Scotland's Rural College)
  • Sponsors: Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW) under their Animal Welfare Research Training Scholarship.
  • Partners: Newcastle University and SRUC (Scotland's Rural College)

Project scope

The hippocampal formation in the brains of birds and mammals is exquisitely sensitive to both enriching environments and chronic stressors. These two categories of environmental impact have opposite effects in the hippocampus.

For example, positive experiences increase hippocampal neurogenesis, while negative ones decrease it. This means that markers derived from the hippocampus are strong candidates for integrative welfare markers which can both detect increases and decreases in animal welfare. In this project, we aim to validate a set of hippocampal markers as welfare indicators in poultry.

In this UFAW-funded project, with PhD student Elena Armstrong, we are taking a novel approach to obtain a sensitive measure of animal welfare by applying neuroscience to develop molecular indicators of welfare status in the brain. Affective state is notoriously difficult to assess in non-human animals, because so much of what we know about affective states comes from introspection, combined with verbal communication.

It is therefore not possible to unambiguously measure affective state in any non-human animal. The next best step then, is to measure biomarkers which are strongly associated with different affective states in humans, and make the assumption that this association is more generally applicable than to humans alone.

Through a series of experiments we aim to develop a sensitive measure of animal welfare for chickens and then validate this on commercial farms. Hence the project is of direct benefit to the poultry industry. The neuroscientific approach that we are taking also has implications far wider than poultry alone, and any positive outcomes would facilitate development of similar lifetime welfare assessment tools across all species of farm, companion and laboratory animals.


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