Research program areas
Research at the ITT focuses on two core research areas, for which we are internationally recognized and leading the field:
- Social behaviour and human-animal relationship, for their positive effects on welfare
- Precision Livestock Farming (PLF) related to real-time and continuous animal welfare assessment.
Positive welfare effects of social behaviour and human-animal relationship
Social behaviour organises many of the affective and stress-coping processes that domestic animals employ in their daily lives. We focus on elucidating the benefits of socio-positive behaviour, as factors that promote positive well-being. The aim is to identify improvements in animal management that take advantage of the benefits of social behaviour in practice. Topics of research include:
- Positive social interactions, characterising the types of behaviour: affiliation, social nosing, micro-behaviours.
- Characterising the quality of social relationships and its implications for welfare: emotional regulation, neurobiological functioning, animal health outcomes.
- Prosocial behaviour, by elucidating its implications for the welfare of other individuals, and possibly the donor.
- Social support, by increasing stress-coping abilities.
- Socio-behavioural development in young animals: cow-calf-contact rearing, loose-housed sows, socialisation with unfamiliar conspecifics.
- The neurophysiological basis of social behaviour: oxytocin, etc.
Humans hold an important place in the life of domestic animals, despite increasing herd size and automation. This research focuses on the concept of a positive human-animal relationship, for farm and companion animals, including:
- The animal’s perception of different gentle interactions with humans and the features of these interactions in terms of control, reciprocity, or within the context of animal-assisted interventions.
- Evidence of positive emotions during interactions with humans.
- Enabling stress-reduction during unavoidable aversive procedures, such as handling, (vet) examination, transport, or through training to minimise distress and ensure safety.
- Long-term beneficial effects on animal health, psychological well-being, and productivity.
- Reports by caretakers acquired by surveys about human attitudes toward animals to explore their associations with human behaviour and decision-making and its impact on animal behaviour and welfare.
Precision Livestock Farming (PLF) related to real-time and continuous animal welfare assessment
Assessment of animal welfare is commonly done through behavioural observation, but it can be laborious. Continuing advances in terms of bioanalytical and technical approaches offer new tools to assess animal welfare. Automated technological approaches allow continuous monitoring of animal welfare, life-long assessment, and potentially early detection of problems through sensor-based data collection (‘Precision Livestock Farming’, PLF). At present, our approach together with the PLF Hub is based on images (video and algorithm) and ear tag sensors. We combine expertise in animal behaviour, health and welfare with processing and bio-mathematical modelling of big data sets, together with complementary research partners. Our focus is on PLF for its use in animal welfare relevant situations: image-based automatic detection of sow farrowing, ear tag movement in sows and growers to identify activity-based welfare indicators, automatic recognition and recording of social behaviour in pigs. This program will be applied to the detection of illness, pain (e.g. lameness) or other practically relevant welfare indicators in farm and companion animals.
Animal welfare is a multi-disciplinary field. At present, we have the following combination of expertise:
- Ethology (animal behaviour)
- Veterinary health (especially epidemiology)
- Psychology (surveys)
- Computer algorithms and programming
- Animal law
Specific ITT research equipment includes:
- Video cameras and recording systems: CCTV systems, camcorders, wildlife infrared cameras, 3-D video cameras
- Thermographic camera
- Fixed video and PLF equipment on VetFarm
- Heart rate variability monitors
- Physiological laboratory equipment: portable centrifuge, pipettes, nitrogen dryer, -20°C and -80°C freezers
- Weather station, shared with Abteilung für Physiologie und Biophysik
- Electronic data storage and big data server
Research facilities available:
- VetFarm Medau: farrow-to-finish pig farm (80 sows), sheep barn (70 ewes) and a multi-species housing facility
- VetFarm Kremesberg and Rehgras: dairy cow farm (90 cows) and dairy heifer farm (40 heifers)
- Private farms or animal-holding facilities: long-term collaboration with farms for laying hens, broiler chickens, dairy cows, dairy goats, companion animal shelters, etc.