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Animal Welfare Student Scholars’ Meeting 2014

cartoonWednesday 3rd December 2014,
Newcastle University

Research Beehive, Old Library Building,
Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU

This year Newcastle kindly played host to the 16th of these roaming, free to all annual meetings - at which those students, who had been awarded an animal welfare student scholarship, present their results of their studies. Newcastle was also well represented in the presentations, with successful scholars Laura Barlow, Gemma Kitson and Samantha Arathimou talking about their work on enrichment for pigs, assessing pain in vasectomised mice and the effect of laminar air flow changing stations on rodent welfare respectively.

Whilst the range and quality of the presentations has remained a constant at these meetings, one of the evolving features has been the increasing presence of scholars from overseas, as students at non-UK institutions that are part of the UFAW LINK scheme can now apply for the award. Students from Guelph (Canada), Universidad Mayor (Chile) and Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (Spain) all attended. The presentation by one of these, Ricard Carreras from UAB, highlighted some of the frustrations that anyone who has been involved in research will be familiar, and was also entertaining and informative. He talked about his attempts to develop an automated cognitive bias task to assess affective state in mice*, something which has been successfully done in a number of other species including rats. As mice are the most used of all mammals in the laboratory, such a test would be helpful in better understanding how they feel and thus to improving their welfare. Despite all his best attempts and increasing refinements to his experimental set-up Ricard was unable to come up with a test that achieved this. Ricard was consoled by Dr Matt Leach (Newcastle), one those listening to the talks, who told him he was in good company as he and researchers at other universities had also been similarly unsuccessful with mice; thus the challenge remains.

The most surprising and concerning issue of the day was highlighted by Ria McLean from Aberystwyth University, who presented data on what is seemingly the routine use of a surgical procedure on a high proportion of Thoroughbred mares in the UK and Ireland. This procedure, called a Caslick’s vulvoplasty involves the suturing together of the labia of affected mares to prevent the entry of air and contamination of the uterus by faecal and other matter. This operation, which is the result of poor vulval confirmation, may be carried out repeatedly; any sutures have to be removed in affected mares prior to breeding and then reinserted once she has been covered by a stallion, and then removed again prior to giving birth.

Ria’s study found that, on average, 59% of the UK mares she surveyed had undergone the procedure at least once, and that as they got older the proportion was much higher (around 90% in mares 15 years or older). Given that the recommendation is that mares with poor vulval confirmation should not be bred from the high incidence of Caslick’s highlights a perhaps under-reported genetic health problem in horses that needs addressing.

As always, we would like to thank all the student scholars who presented their work and everyone who attended and the Newcastle staff for their hospitality and support, especially that of Dr Clare Richardson. If you haven’t attended one of these meetings yet then why not do so? The next meeting will be held in the second week of December, and the venue decided in September and announced in the annual report.

(*Assessing cognitive bias is a technique that was first originated by UFAW funded research training scholar Dr Emma Harding in 2002. It is used to determine the state of mind of a tested animal by exploring, through its response to a signal, as to whether it is optimistic or pessimistic about its chances of receiving a reward).