It’s well known that happy workers of the human variety are also productive workers, and farmers know that the same holds true for animals. However, because animals aren’t likely to reveal their emotional state on a psychiatrist’s couch, the current methods to measure animals’ wellbeing have largely focused on biological indicators of stress via blood tests or through studies of animal behavior. Now researchers at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) are looking to use cognitive principles based on human psychological theories to assess animal emotions.

Driven not only by the desire to increase animal productivity, but also in response to increased public concern for the welfare of animals, the science of objective measurement of animal welfare is relatively new. Blood tests that show changes in animal physiology or immune systems in response to stress are one of the more common methods currently used. Studies of animal behavior 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,” says CSIRO scientist Dr Caroline Lee. “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.”

With the aim of reducing stress and pain in livestock and increasing not only their well-being but also their productivity, at CSIRO Livestock Industries' research facility near Armidale, NSW, Dr Lee is using 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. “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.”

The CSIRO research is being undertaken in collaboration with Dr Alain Boissy at the National Agronomy Research Institute in France.

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