Measuring an animal’s emotional expressivity


Description of impact

Pioneering work led by Professor Françoise Wemelsfelder to create a tool which looks at the emotional experience of animals has revolutionised animal welfare assessment internationally.
Animal welfare is an increasingly important concern in all industries involvingcaptive animals.
Conventional assumptions among scientists are that an animal’s capability to experience emotions can only be measured indirectly through analysis of physical behaviours, often with an emphasis on negative behaviours such as biting and other stress responses.
Researchers at SRUC sought to challenge this and developed a method called Qualitative Behaviour Assessment (QBA), as part of an ongoing animal welfare research programme funded by the UK Government’s Departmentfor Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Scottish Government.
QBA assesses an animal’s body language by describing not what the animal is doing physically, say sitting or running, but how those behaviours are expressed in the way the animal moves, for example in a relaxed, agitated or bored manner. QBA provides a method for quantifying such qualitative terms so they are open to systematic scientific analysis.
A particular strength of QBA is its capacity to include the positive aspects of welfare (‘happiness’). Elevated heart rate, for example, is an important stress indicator, but could equally likely be a positive sign of, say, joyful anticipation or exuberant play. QBA weighs up the various negative and positive aspects of an animal’s expressivity into more subtle, balanced assessments of its mood.
Donkey welfare management at The Donkey Sanctuary
Following the publication of a QBA protocol for donkeys for the EU Welfare Quality programme in 2015, The Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth, Devon incorporated QBA as part of its global welfare assessment and management strategy for domestic donkeys. It has since assessed more than 27,400 donkeys worldwide.
Captive elephant welfare management
A QBA descriptor list for captive elephants was developed and validated by researchers at the University of Nottingham. This list is now included in the elephant welfare assessment protocol within Defra’s Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice 2017. All 15 UK zoo parks holding elephants are now legally mandated to apply this protocol quarterly.
During a pilot study in Zimbabwe, adoption of this protocol resulted in elephants being taken off chains and released into small groups overnight.
International impact on policy
Australia In 2019, the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock incorporated QBA into its animal health and welfare assessment protocol. This protocol is now mandatory to apply during sea voyages of sheep and cattle taking longer than 10 days.
The Meat and Livestock Australia and the Australian Lot Feeders Association also commissioned an adjusted version of this protocol for welfare monitoring in feedlot cattle.
In November 2019, SRUC’s research team received Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council funding to support the development of a mobile app to facilitate widespread and consistent use of QBA, comparing animal or herd scores to reference cohorts and tracking their welfare over time. The emergence of this app coincided with negotiations with Waitrose, which went on to adopt the QBA app on an exclusive-use basis for two years in 2020.
Impact on animal welfare education
QBA has also been incorporated into the teaching curriculum of veterinary and animal welfare courses across the world. These include Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia, the University of Barcelona, and the University of Guelph in Southwestern Ontario, Canada.
This is an edited version of an impact case study, which formed part of a joint submission with the University of Edinburgh to REF2021.