Monday, 5 November 2012

Animal welfare: what is ethology?

(c) Gary Larson
Ethology is the systematic science of studying animal behaviour. Applied ethology focuses on the behaviour of those animals, with which humans interact with, or which are useful to humans. Only by understanding animal behaviour we can
  • treat the animal correctly
  • understand and increase animal welfare
  • collaborate with the animal
  • learn more, thus increasing our motivation to treat the animal well
  • understand and interpret the animal
Studying one animal or one animal species is not enough, however. Each species have their own needs and behaviour. Through domestication we have changed how many animals look, but most of their behaviour is still the same it was thousands of years ago.


Domestication means "becoming genetically tame" - through selection, humans have caused permanent genetic changes when taming the animals. For example, dogs were domesticated around 15 000 years ago. Humans tamed dogs, worked together with them, and started to breed dogs for different purposes. Humans selected which dogs were bred, and took their dogs with them to new areas. With selective breeding humans were able to create different dog types, and eventually breeds.

Domesticated animals have several traits which drastically decrease their ability to survive in the wild. They become less alert and less fearful, and their escape range is smaller. Animals used for production (such as goats, cows, chickens, pigs) produce and grow much more than is natural for them. Many domesticated animals also have "unnatural" appearances or body structure, such as bright white color, long and luxurious fur or hindered movements. Domesticated animals are also less defensive of their offspring and more playful even as adults.Their life span has also increased due to living in "ideal conditions", where food, healthcare and shelter are always available. 

While domestication changes animals permanently, only domesticated species can survive and even thrive in the modern world together with us humans.

Motivation and needs

They both have the same needs, but only one can fulfill them.
(c) birthofanewearth-blog and
With every action, an animal tries to fulfill a need. Whether it will or will not do so depends on its motivation. Motivation is affected by external and internal factors: weather, food, social environment, hunger, thirst, hormonal balance and pain. For example, wild sows build nests before parturition (giving birth to piglets). It has a biological need to care for its offspring. Hormonal changes motivate the animal to build a nest, so it acts to fill this need. The building behaviour and seeing the finished nest decrease the sow's motivation for nest building. It has fulfilled a need.  Domesticated sows in piggeries have this same, very strong need for nest building, but no possibility to fill it. This creates an incredible amount of stress for the animal, even though it could be easily prevented by providing sows with nesting material (hay, straw, dry peat) a few days before parturition.

Unfilled needs lead to behaviour problems. Behaviour, which deviates for what is natural for the animal, is a behaviour problem. It may even be harmful for the animal or to the herd. Behaviour problems are not the same as disruptive behaviour, although in the common language these two are often mixed. A dog which barks when left alone shows disruptive behavior, but a dog chewing its own paws to relieve stress shows a behaviour problem. Behaviour problems are the animal's way to adapt to it's environment and to the stress it causes. Given no litter, pigs tend to relieve their stress by chewing on bars and the tails of other animals. To battle boredom, cows may loll or roll their tongues. If this behaviour is prevented, the animal tries desperately to find new ways to relieve the increased stress.

Factors affecting behaviour

Animal behaviour is formed by
  1. inborn characteristics (a newborn instinctively crawls to the udder)
  2. inherited inclinations (bird songs)
  3. learned behaviour (using a water bowl or feeder)
Reflexes are inborn characteristics, which need no conscious processing. It is an "automatic" response to a certain stimulus. Frightened animals often escape or defend themselves first, and then think afterwards. It would be essential for their survival in the wild.

Instincts are inborn characteristics which need no learning. Unlike reflexes, instincts involve conscious processing. They are often linked to basic needs: animals know instinctively what to eat or how to attract a mate.

Imprinting creates bonds between animals, animals and humans and animals and their environment. Imprinting is most effective after birth, when the mother and its offspring are imprinted to one another, creating a life-long bond. Without imprinting, moms do not recognize their offspring, and may even try to kill them.


Applied ethology:
E-learning: Ethology e-courses by Cambridge University
A short video on pig domestication: Youtube
Lorenz motivation model, often used in ethology 

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