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Animal welfare: See things from their perspective

September 23, 2006

NewScientist.com news service

by Andy Coghlan 

Your dog falls ill, so you take him to the vet. After a quick consultation you take him home, and soon he appears to be better. But he is not. You and the vet have failed to realise that he is still in severe pain, and the drugs the vet has prescribed will turn him into a social outcast, a dog that may be shunned or even attacked by others. 

Such mistakes can happen, say animal behaviour specialists, because our understanding of animal welfare is inadequate, and at times misguided. The human tendency to anthropomorphise means we miss out on animals' real feelings and needs, with the result that we often provide them with inappropriate housing and medical care. This is leading to the health and well being of millions of animals kept as pets, livestock or in zoos being adversely affected. 

Last week, researchers gathered at a conference held at the Royal Society in London to hear the latest evidence on how animals interpret the world. One thing is clear: they do not see it the same way we do, and only by accepting that can we learn to care for them better. "The matter of central interest is the animals' own perspective on its quality of life," says James Kirkwood of the Universities Federation for animal Welfare, which co-sponsored the conference with the British Veterinary Association. 

The conference comes as pressure for a similar change in attitude builds in the US, where the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research is carrying out the country's first in-depth investigation into stress and distress in laboratory animals. "There's no question, even among researchers, that quality-of-life issues are becoming of more concern," says Bernard Rollin, a philosopher at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and veteran campaigner for improved animal welfare legislation.

Different animals exhibit different behaviours and levels of intelligence, so a set of carefully designed tests is being put together to assess animals' health and welfare. The aim is to allow owners and vets to make objective decisions on how to care for them, free of subjective human assumptions. Many tests, such as those devised in the UK by Lesley Wiseman-Orr, Jacky Reid and colleagues at the University of Glasgow's Institute of Comparative Medicine, rely on a form of psychometric assessment that asks a series of specific questions about an animal's behaviour. 

Wiseman-Orr and Reid have designed a simple one-page questionnaire that can be used to evaluate whether a dog is in pain, an approach they say can be used to objectively evaluate the welfare of any animal in any setting. Their latest test monitors the health and welfare of dogs suffering arthritis. A series of 109 questions covering 13 facets of a dog's appearance, behaviour and habits allow a vet to track the progression of the disease and which treatments are working. The idea is to replace subjective assessments with an objective, repeatable system of logging symptoms.

 David Morton of the University of Birmingham, UK, is developing a system to help vets and owners decide whether an animal is suffering so much that it ought to be put down. Its ratings weigh signs of physical distress against positive signs, such as a dog wagging its tail, to give a dispassionate measure of how an animal is faring. 

Françoise Wemelsfelder of the Scottish Agricultural College in Edinburgh is looking at a different aspect of welfare: developing a way to assess the suitability of the environment in which animals are kept. She asks observers to watch recordings of groups of animals and then choose adjectives that best describe their physical condition, demeanour and behaviour in a particular environments. These "emotional profile descriptors" are placed on a grid according to how positive or negative the words are. Completed grids show clusters of words which reflect the body language of an animal in that environment.

Over 60 studies on pigs, cattle, sheep and poultry show that "without exception, we've found high levels of agreement between observers, regardless of whether they're vets, farmers or activists," says Wemelsfelder. "Shown videos, they agree what the body language of the animal means." 

In the first practical pilot study of the technique, Wemelsfelder asked 11 vets of the UK State Veterinary Service to apply the technique to commercial pig farms. The completed grids show the animals were far less happy crowded into small, indoor penned enclosures. "Before this study, inspectors would simply have rated pigs as 'healthy' or 'unhealthy'," says Wemelsfelder. The new technique reveals much more about how animals react to their circumstances, which will help with the design of better enclosures and encourage animals to be housed in appropriately enriched environments. 

It could also help vets find more appropriate ways to treat animals and relieve suffering. For instance, some medical therapies can interfere with how an animal interacts with others, says John Bradshaw of the University of Bristol, UK. Treat a dog with antibiotics, and you risk killing the bacteria that live in its anal sac and produce the individual scent by which it is recognisable to other dogs. "We don't think of dogs losing their identities as a result of medical treatment," he says. Our failure to see life from a dog's perspective means that vets will too freely prescribe antibiotics without considering the consequences for the animal. 

Sarah Wolfensohn, head of veterinary services at the University of Oxford, is interested in addressing the issue of how animals cumulatively suffer over time, a facet of injury or illness that is often ignored by human carers. She assesses five parameters, such as the clinical status of the animal, and the extent to which the injury hampers its behaviour, and from this calculates an overall score of suffering, which can be repeatedly checked over weeks or months, she told the conference. 

Wolfensohn's research, submitted to the journal Animal Welfare, could even be used to help settle some debates over animal rights. In her paper, she describes how her methodology could be used to compare the relative suffering endured by say, a dairy calf, a pet dog, or a primate used in biomedical research.

Inside the mind of a cow

In the future, researchers hope they we will be able to more accurately gauge any physical sensations or emotions an animal is feeling by scanning its brain. 

There is already a large research effort to discover and map the seats of emotion, learning and intelligence in the human brain, using techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging. Once we know what makes us tick, says Keith Kendrick of the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, UK, we might be able to locate the corresponding areas in the brains of animals. Then we could find out directly whether our pet dog or cat, or a dairy farm's top-yielding cow, is feeling happy or miserable - or perhaps that these are emotions that such animals are incapable of experiencing.

 From what we already know, it seems likely that the size and development of an animal's neocortex - the largest and most distinctive part of the human brain - will determine how aware it is of its surroundings, whether it has emotions, or to what degree it is conscious. "Quality-of-life issues apply to all species with some form of neocortex," Kendrick says. "But different species experience levels of consciousness which might be much more primitive."

 

For example, most species only seem capable of thinking in the present, and cannot think about past or future events. Similarly, few animals appear to be self-aware, or aware that other creatures are sentient. 

As experimental evidence of the mental capabilities and limitations of animals accumulates, we should be able to dismiss some of the assumptions we make about animals, says John Bradshaw of the University of Bristol, UK. As an example, he cites the scenario of a pet owner returning home to find their dog has damaged the furniture. The owner would likely admonish or punish the dog, not realising that it will have little, if any recollection of the damage it caused hours ago. If the dog learns anything from the experience, it will be to associate the punishment with the owner's angry face. 

"Owners perceive pets as if they were human," says Bradshaw, who points out that anthropomorphism plays a key role in the relationship between people and their pets, possibly because looking on animals in this way is an intrinsic property of the human brain. "We must work with it and get round it rather than dismissing it," he adds. Birds of a feather It is all too easy to make poor decisions about animals' welfare by failing to take into account the particular characteristics of different species. 

One example is the way we view cats and dogs, and how that perception leads to inappropriate veterinary treatment, says Natalie Waran of the Unitec Institute of Technology in Auckland, New Zealand. She cites previous studies showing that vets routinely administer significantly less analgesic to cats being spayed than to dogs of equal weight, mainly because they assume that the procedure causes less pain to cats than to dogs. Yet a recent study by Waran shows that cats do indeed feel pain when spayed, and react by crouching in what Waran describes as a "half tucked up" posture. 

We also tend to make anthropomorphic assumptions about which are the best environments for animals to live in. It is assumed, for example, that poultry are unhappy when crammed together in broiler houses. Yet when Marian Dawkins of the University of Oxford studied the behaviour of a select number of some 2.7 million broiler chickens in the UK, 70 per cent of the national flock, she found that the birds don't like to be alone, and naturally flock. Dawkins experimented by placing chickens at random positions in broiler houses and seeing where the birds choose to move to. "They actually choose to sit together," she says. "They are much more clumped than you would expect at random."


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