Animal Welfare Student Scholars’ Meeting 2017

cartoonWednesday 25th January 2017,
Psychology Department, University of Stirling, Stirling


This year the Psychology Department of the University of Stirling kindly played host to the 17th 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.

Understanding the needs of animals and assessing their welfare is always a difficult challenge because we cannot ask them how they feel. Instead we have to find ways of inferring this by finding measures that are reflective of their state and it is this challenge that was addressed by many of the scholars who presented at this year’s meeting; examples of two of which follow.

Amphibians are an under studied taxonomic group, the assessment of whose needs poises particular challenges as, because of their biology, they can be rather different to our own and hence not readily apparent. Whilst, as reported in our journal ‘Animal Welfare’ and in our annual reports and newsletters behaviour has long been used to assess the welfare of individuals, increasingly it is being paired with physiological measures to gain better insights. This more technically demanding and sophisticated approach was used by Martin Pearson (University of Chester)who looked at the effect of visitors numbers on Morelet’s tree frogs (Agalychnis moreletii) housed in a public aquarium.

Martin had a range of objectives for his study, including: to develop and validate assays to measure corticosterone and cortisol levels in Morelet’s tree frogs; to determine whether there is a significant relationship between visitor numbers and corticosterone and cortisol levels and to determine whether there is a significant relationship between visitor numbers and the behaviours of the frogs.

Martin was able to validate for the first time an immunoassay to reliably detect cortisol and corticosterone levels in the faeces of Morelet’s tree frogs, although he found no correlation these hormones and between previous day’s visitor numbers. He did find that the behaviour of the frogs was influenced by visitors, with the frogs becoming less active as visitor numbers increased. This was shown as a significant negative correlation found between increasing visitor numbers and bouts of movement and total time spent moving, number of eye blinks and changes in eye position and shifts in position – through jumps from the glass surface of the enclosure into the foliage of the enclosure.

Martin is continuing to look the welfare of Morelet’s tree frogs but concluded that the assay methodology he has developed offers opportunities for it to be modified and applied to assess the welfare of other amphibian species, that the inhibitory effect of increasing visitor numbers on frog behaviour suggests that exhibits need to consider implementing management programmes to lessen the impact and that his work highlights that lower vertebrate species housing needs require consideration alongside those of the more high profile charismatic species such as lions, tigers and elephants.

As reported in last year’s newsletter, infrared thermography is a relatively new, non-invasive, technique that makes use of increasingly affordable technology to take infrared images of animals and to look for changes in surface temperature that may be due to increased blood flow to certain areas and indicative of inflammation or a painful stimulus. Caroline Krall (Newcastle University) used this technology to investigate whether it could be used to measure post-operative pain in male rabbits, by comparing the temperature at three points in the ear and the nose, post castration in rabbits undergoing two different courses of pain relief. Rabbits as a prey species have evolved to mask signs of pain and this can make assessing their welfare via behavioural means difficult. Infrared thermography offers the possibility of identifying other markers that can be used to support any assessment.

Across both pain relief protocols, she found a decrease in temperature in each point two hours post castration, which matches previous findings of surgery induced temperature falls, and a recovery by five hours. This finding validates the cameras and software she was using to measure temperature. She also found that the tip of the ear was the only location in which there was detectable variation in temperature between the protocols. The rabbits that were being treated with the standard pain relief protocol showed significantly lower temperature at the tip five hours post-castration than those rabbits on an enhanced multi-modal pain relief protocol. She hypothesised that this may because the standard group felt more pain and therefore vasoconstriction, in which blood vessels at the periphery of the body constrict to direct increasing amounts of blood into the main core of the body, had occurred in these rabbits. Whilst acknowledging that thermography may have a role in the assessment of post-operative pain, Caroline was also cautious pointing out that the temperature changes it measures are not specific to pain, and that to fully validate the technique such changes need to be supported and linked with established pain recognition techniques.

Other speakers at the meeting included Sean Wensley, ex-student scholar 2001 and BVA President in 2016, who in an entertaining and personal talk discussed how his interest in welfare developed over the years from the time of his scholarship and led to him making welfare a central theme of his BVA presidency. Dr Jessica Martin, University of Edinburgh, also presented the results of the work she undertook as part of her HSA research training scholarship into the development of a novel mechanical device to humanely kill chickens on-farm. Both their contributions gave the scholars an insight into how they might take their interest in animal welfare forward.

The meeting was rounded off by a few words of thanks from UFAW council member Mike Radford (University of Aberdeen).

As always, we would like to thank all those who talked at the meeting and everyone who attended and the Stirling staff for their hospitality and support, especially that of Professor Hannah Buchanan-Smith and Dr Eoin O’Sullivan. If you haven’t attended one of these meetings yet then why not do so? These meeting are normally held in the second week of December, with the venue decided in September and announced in the annual report. 



Download a Timetable for the meeting.