Well Being Assessment Behavioral Indicators

J. C. Swanson M. Rassette

Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas, U.S.A.


Animal well-being can be characterized as the harmony an animal is experiencing mentally and physically with its environment. Animal well-being is often used interchangeably with the term animal welfare. Domestic livestock and poultry are raised under a variety of environmental conditions that are vastly different from those of their wild ancestors. The scientific assessment of the well-being of livestock and poultry has become important to the sustainability of raising them for food. The best scientific approach and criteria to assess animal well-being have yet to achieve a scientific consensus, but it is generally accepted that behavior, physiology, health, productivity, cognition, and system ecology are indicators of animal well-being.


The repertoire of behavior expressed by a domestic animal reflects a living history of its natural and artificial selection. Generally, behavior is used to identify and assess animal needs, preferences, state of health, ability to adapt and cope with its social and physical environment, emotional state, and to gain insight into what an animal may comprehend or feel about its environment.

Several behavioral indicators are commonly cited as useful to understanding and assessing animal well-being including abnormal behavior, posture, vocalization, responsiveness, grooming and displacement behavior, preferences animals express toward features of their living environment, and the presence/absence of stereotypies.

Abnormal Behavior

The use of abnormal behavior as an indicator of well-being requires a clear knowledge of what constitutes normal behavior for a species. Species behavior is se-quenced, measured, described, and recorded to construct an ethogram. The ethogram characterizes both instinctive and learned behavior displayed throughout a species' life cycle. Ethograms of wild ancestors, close relatives, or feral members of the same species are useful in studying the behavioral similarities and differences induced by domestication. An example of abnormal behavior is an outbreak of tail biting in pigs. The interpretation of behavior elicited under domestic conditions is complicated and requires that we understand the cause, developmental aspects, and function of the behavior within the construct of the evolutionary and domestic history of the species.


The posture of an animal represents a coping response to a stimulus. Posture is often coupled with other behavioral indicators such as vocalization and locomotion to assess well-being. Researchers have studied the usefulness of posture to correctly assess the amount of pain and distress an animal may experience after being subjected to common animal management procedures. For example, a behavioral method using posture was validated to assess acute pain associated with different castration procedures used on lambs.[1] Each procedure was ranked according to an established index of expected pain. Physiologic and behavioral data (including posture) were then collected for a period of 60 minutes postprocedure. The data were analyzed according to the ability to place a lamb into the correct procedure group. A combination of behavior and posture data correctly placed 79% of the lambs into their respective treatment groups.[1]

As technology advances, so too does the sophistication of using an animal's posture or movement for assessing well-being. For example, computer image analysis has been used to measure the severity of head movements of cattle undergoing various types of branding to measure their aversion to the procedure,[2] and to evaluate the thermal comfort of pigs based on their proximity to one another.[3] While assessments must be validated for other species and for different types of practices, postural measures appear to be useful behavioral indicators of well-being.


Animals convey a range of emotional states through various types of vocalizations. Vocalizations are context-

specific, and the circumstances under which vocalizations are emitted must be carefully considered. For example, a recent study compared the vocalizing of cattle in slaughter plants before and after modifications were made in animal handling procedures.[4] The data were used to evaluate the effectiveness of the plant modifications. Indeed, a reduction in observable aversive events (prod use, slippage, excessive restraint pressure) decreased the amount of vocalization behavior.[4] Other researchers have found similar uses for vocalization in different species. One study measured the occurrence and frequency of calls in piglets being castrated, and found a significantly greater rate of high-frequency calls (>1000 Hz) compared with controls who were handled similarly but not actually castrated.[5] The researchers were able to isolate the most painful part of the procedure itself, and the effect these vocalizations had on other piglets, both of which have important implications for well-being.


The degree of an animal's responsiveness to stimuli also acts as an indicator of well-being. For example, the attitudes and behavior of dairy stockpersons toward cows have been researched and a correlation found between the stockperson's behaviors and the avoidance distance of cows.[6] Avoidance behavior can shed light on an animal's past relationship with humans and reflect the well-being of individuals or groups. Another example of responsiveness as an indicator of well-being comes from a study using tonic immobility.1-7-1 Tonic immobility is a state of petrification induced by positioning a bird on its back or side consequently, no movement is detected for a given period of time. The time until the bird recovers head movement, stands, and walks is measured. Shorter latencies to recovery indicate a better coping response by the bird. Reduced or absent responsiveness of an animal has been recognized as an indicator of poor well-being.

Grooming and Displacement Behaviors

Grooming as a social and self-maintenance behavior can reflect the relative well-being of an individual or an entire group. Disruption or abnormal manifestations of grooming are measurable events. The lack of grooming, indicated by poor hair/fur coat or feather condition, is often used as an indicator of sickness or depression for individual animals. Abnormal pulling of hair/fur or feathers or obsessive grooming activities may occur in individuals or within groups. Both are considered abnormal.

A displacement behavior is the result of frustration or behavioral disinhibition, or is performed when an animal is in conflict with how to behave in a given set of circumstances. For example, abnormal feather pecking in laying hens may be the displaced behavior of natural foraging or dustbathing and has been used to assess different housing conditions of egg-laying hens.[8] Feather pecking in hens can lead to significant feather loss or even skin damage. Thus, the occurrence of displacement behavior and abnormal forms of grooming can be measured and used to assess well-being.


Preference tests are valuable tools to evaluate stimuli or conditions by appealing to the desires of the animal. For example, such tests can be used to assess the effects on well-being of different enrichment devices or housing conditions. In one study, researchers tested the preferences of dairy cattle for different kinds of flooring sand, straw, or a soft rubber mat.[9] The cows avoided sand and preferred either the mat or straw. The researchers then tested whether a preference existed between the mat and straw. They found that cattle preferred straw in winter, but in summer, cows showed no special preference for one system over the other. Preference testing of this type allows for better design of housing systems. However, extreme care must be taken when designing and drawing conclusions from such tests. For example, exposure to resource cues can affect the performance of an animal in preference tests.[10] Cues such as odors can be undetectable to humans, but obvious to animals. Carefully controlled preference tests are useful in validating the needs and choices of animals.


Stereotypy is a common abnormal behavior observed in intensively farmed species and thought to be the product of impoverished environments. Stereotypies are behavior patterns repeated without variation and appear to have no obvious goal or function. Examples include bar-biting; fur, hair, or wool chewing; sham chewing; tongue lolling; and a variety of locomotion patterns such as head-weaving. Once developed, stereotypies can be difficult to extinguish, even when animals are moved into more enriched environments. This indicates an addictive quality to the behavior that requires an understanding of its neurophysiological development. Performance of stereotypic behavior is often cited as an indicator of poor well-being.

Researchers have studied stereotypies in nearly all farmed species, including those farmed for fur, such as mink raised in cages.[11] Potential remedies such as environmental enrichment are often explored to provide relief. However, the view that all stereotypies indicate poor well-being is controversial.1-12-14-1 Performance of stereotypy could also indicate excitement or anticipation of a resource. Thus, stereotypic behaviors are complex and must be fully examined to determine the effect on well-being.

Although the motivation to stereotype in domestic species has been researched, the neurophysiological implications are only beginning to be elucidated. For example, recent studies have linked altered brain functioning and enhanced frustration to stereotypies found in caged birds.[15] Greater understanding of the disruption to brain function could eventually adjudicate the competing views on stereotypic behavior. At present, the exhibition of stereotypies in domestic animals should prompt a closer look at other well-being indicators to further assess the possibility of a poor state of well-being.


Behavior is one of several indicators used to assess animal well-being. There is still much to be learned about the behavior of our domestic livestock and poultry and what constitutes a state of good well-being or contentment. Although scientific consensus has not been reached regarding good versus poor well-being, there is general agreement that behavior provides insight into factors that promote or detract from an animal's quality of life.


1. Molony, V.; Kent, J.E.; McKendrick, I.J. Validation of a method for assessment of an acute pain in lambs. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 2002, 76 (3), 215 238.

2. Schwartzkopf Genswein, K.S.; Stookey, J.M.; Crowe, T.G.; Genswein, B.M. Comparison of image analysis, exertion force, and behavior measurements for use in the assessment of beef cattle responses to hot iron and freeze branding. J. Anim. Sci. 1998, 76 (4), 972 979.

3. Xin, H. Assessing swine thermal comfort by image analysis of postural behaviors. J. Anim. Sci. 1998, 77 (supplement 2), 1 9.

4. Grandin, T. Cattle vocalizations are associated with handling and equipment problems at beef slaughter plants. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 2001, 71 (3), 191 201.

5. Weary, D.M.; Braithwaite, L.A.; Fraser, D. Vocal response to pain in piglets. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 1998, 56 (2 4), 161 172.

6. Waiblinger, S.; Menke, C.; Coleman, G. The relationship between attitudes, personal characteristics and behaviour of stockpeople and subsequent behaviour and production of dairy cows. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 2002, 79 (3), 195 219.

7. Hocking, P.M.; Maxwell, M.H.; Robertson, G.W.; Mitchell, M.A. Welfare assessment of broiler breeders that are food restricted after peak rate of lay. British Poultry Science 2002, 43 (1), 5 15.

8. El Lethey, H.; Aerni, V.; Jungi, T.W.; Wechsler, B. Stress and feather pecking in laying hens in relation to housing conditions. British Poultry Science 2000, 41 (1), 22 28.

9. Manninen, E.; de Passille, A.M.; Rushen, J.; Norring, M.; Saloniemi, H. Preferences of dairy cows kept in unheated buildings for different kinds of flooring. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 2002, 75 (4), 281 292.

10. Warburton; Mason, G.J. Is out of sight out of mind? The effects of resources cues on motivation in mink. Anim. Behav. 2003, 65 (4), 755 762.

11. Nimon, A.J.; Broom, D.M. The welfare of farmed mink (Mustela vison) in relation to housing and management: A review. Animal Welfare 1999, 8 (3), 205 228.

12. Vinke, C.M. Some comments on the review of nimon and broom on the welfare of farmed mink. Animal Welfare 2001, 10 (3), 315 324.

13. Mason, G.J.; Mendel, M. Do Stereotypies of pigs, chickens, and mink reflect adaptive species differentiation in control of foraging? Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 1997, 53 (1/2), 45 58.

14. Broom, D.M.; Nimon, A.J. Response to Vinke's short communication: Comments on mink needs and welfare indicators. Animal Welfare 2001, 10 (3), 325 326.

15. Garner, J.P.; Mason, G.J.; Smith, R. Stereotypic route tracing in experimentally caged songbirds correlates with general behavioural disinhibition. Anim. Behav. 2003, 66 (4), 711 727.

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