FWF Project

Gentle human interactions and positive emotions in cattle

The experience of positive emotions, e.g. joy, is essential for farm animal welfare. It may also have an economic impact by enhancing health via physiological responses. As the focus of research on animal welfare has traditionally been the avoidance of negative emotions, studies of positive emotions in farm animals are rare, especially regarding the role of humans as a potential source. Gentle interactions (stroking and talking in a gentle voice) are considered to induce positive emotions in cattle but studies are contradictory and some animals apparently do not perceive the interactions as positive. It is necessary to find out how to induce positive emotions most effectively and to further investigate their physiological effects.
First, we will test whether cattle prefer being stroked in a flexible, reactive way to standardized stroking on the ventral side of the neck. We believe that it may be important how much control an animal has over the situation for it to perceive the gentle interactions with humans as positive. We will conduct two experiments to investigate different aspects of control during gentle interactions, using behavioural observation and measurement of heart rate to make conclusions about the animals' emotional state. We will compare the reactions of cattle to gentle interactions during restraint and in a situation where they are free to move and avoid the experimenter; and we will investigate whether it is more effective to habituate cattle to gentle interactions with humans while they are restrained or free-moving.
We also believe that the perception of gentle interactions with humans is influenced by the sensory channels targeted in the interaction. We will compare the influences of stroking and of talking in a gentle voice in a stressful situation after previous habituation of the animals to the interactions. An animal will be isolated in a novel environment, causing behavioural and physiological stress responses; a human will then join the animal and we will measure whether stroking or talking to the animal or the combination of both leads to a stronger reduction of stress responses.
Finally, we suggest that gentle interactions with humans, if perceived as positive, have physiological effects that can promote animal health. We will thus investigate whether gentle interactions affect different physiological parameters linked to relaxation, stress and the immune system.
Our research will yield valuable information on the relationships between emotions, behaviour and physiology. The results may aid in the improvement of the welfare of cattle and potentially other farmed species.