Social approach and place aversion in relation to conspecific pain in dairy calves

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Source: PLOS ONE

Abstract

Despite scientific interest in animal empathy, and growing public concern for farm animal welfare, the empathic abilities of farm animals remain under researched. In this study, we investigated empathic responses of young Holstein dairy calves to conspecifics recovering from hot-iron disbudding, a painful procedure common on dairy farms. A combination of social approach and place conditioning was used. First, ‘observer’ calves witnessed two ‘demonstrator’ calves recover from either a painful procedure (hot-iron disbudding and sedation) or a sham procedure (sedation alone) in distinct pens. Observer calves spent more time in proximity and paid more attention to calves recovering from the painful procedure compared to sham calves (proximity: 59.6 ± 4.3%; attention: 54.3 ± 1.5%). Observers were then tested for conditioned place aversion (in the absence of demonstrators) at 48h, 72h and 96h after the second demonstration; observers tended to avoid the pen associated with conspecific pain during the second of the three tests, spending 34.8 ± 9.6% of their time in this pen. No strong evidence of pain empathy was found, but our tentative results encourage further research on empathy in animals.

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