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pigs faceIS SOMEONE THERE? How social support affects habituation, training and test results of piglets in a Judgement Bias Task


Year: 2023

Martina Kröll
University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU), Vienna

Supervisor(s): Dr Sara Hintze & Professor Christoph Winckler


Social animals, as the name suggests, have one common characteristic: They benefit from social support during challenging situations, and they are suffering distress when they are exposed to isolation. Concerning the negative impact of distress on animal welfare, this should be avoided whenever possible. However, this fact is still widely ignored when it comes to training and testing highly social animals, like pigs, who commonly have to endure this procedure in social isolation.

The Judgement Bias Task (JBT), a promising cognitive proxy measure of affective states, was chosen to compare piglets trained and tested in either social isolation (ISO, n=12) or with visual and physical contact to social companions next to the test arena (SOC, n=12). The principle of the JBT is that animals in a positive mental state are more likely to make an optimistic judgment about ambiguous future events than negative minded individuals. The JBT allowed us to assess both behavioural (e.g. behaviour indicating relaxation or discomfort during training or testing) as well as cognitive differences (i.e. optimistic choices during testing) between the two treatment groups.

Descriptive data analysis indicates that the mean of all sessions needed to complete the training was higher for animals trained in social isolation (27.38 ± 9.36) compared to those trained with social companions (20.89 ± 6.98). The test results of the JBT show that the two treatment groups did not differ numerically in the number of Go responses they showed (SOC: 70.37% ± 36.20; ISO: 74.31% ± 35.43). However, it should be noted that methodological changes were adapted for Batch 2 due to highly optimistic responses to the ambiguous cues observed in Batch 1, which resulted in a ceiling effect and made comparison between groups impossible (see presentation for more details). Results still need to be confirmed by inferential statistical analyses and the behaviour of the pigs during training and testing still needs to be analysed. More detailed results are thus upcoming.

This study potentially provides new insights to improve pig welfare by considering the probable calming effect of the companion animals as well as a decreased training duration. It could thus play a demonstrative role to enhance the use of companion animals in training and testing situations.