Advances in understanding pain and stress in dairy cows

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Pain and stress are inherent aspects of many situations in the lives of cattle oncommercial farms. When measures have not been taken to provide adequatepain relief, pain can be experienced as part of routine farm practices such ascastration and disbudding or dehorning in youngstock. Pain is also associatedwith various diseases, can occur following accidental injuries and may beexperienced during parturition. Similarly, there are many aspects of currentsystems used to manage beef and dairy cattle that may cause stress. Socialstress is often a major issue, as cattle are managed in groups which may belarger, more densely stocked or of a different social structure than the conditions cattle have been evolutionarily adapted to (Bouissou et al., 2001). Cattle may be exposed to management procedures that involve periods of isolation, handling and proximity to humans that causes them stress and fear. Under certain circumstances cattle may also experience nutritional stress, when feed availability does not meet the needs of the animal. Feed restriction may also be imposed as part of a management procedure, such as the process of drying-off in dairy cattle, where lactation is ended more or less abruptly, often whenthe cow is still producing considerable amounts of milk (Fujiwara et al., 2018).Additionally, irrespective of the management system, cattle can be exposed tothermal stress, which may be alleviated or exacerbated by the housing facilitiesor topography of the grazing land. Identification of environmental or husbandry causes of pain and stress and the quantification of the associated severity of experience are very important. Interventions can then be designed, or recommendations can be made that will alleviate or reduce this pain and stress.Pain and stress are affective states. Affective states (or emotions) can bedefined as psychological and biological states that have a valence (positive vs.negative) and an arousal (active vs. inactive) element (Mendl and Paul, 2020).As animals evolved to escape from or remove the source of pain or stress,then we can say that affective states cause changes in motivational states.Cognitive processes are also involved in these affective states, as animals areable to remember the stimuli present in pain and stress events and recall themin later similar events (Mendl and Paul, 2020). Assessment of these negativestates is central to most modern concepts of animal welfare. The concept thatemotion, motivation and cognition all play a role in an animal’s experience of,and response to, any event is particularly critical to how we assess and alleviatepain and stress. Critically, however, how the experience ‘feels’ to the individualis the most important aspect of all.Therefore, we contend that the most important advances in understandingpain and stress in cattle that have been made—or should be aimed for in thefuture—relate to our understanding of what particular states mean to the animalitself. Traditionally, assessments of pain and stress have involved quantificationof changes in behaviour and in physiological indicators. However, moresophisticated methodologies are required to truly identify the significance ofthe pain and stress to the individual. The closer we can get to knowing whatthe individual animal is feeling, the better we can understand the significanceof the pain stimuli or stressor to that animal. This is a challenging task andthe subject of much scientific debate, but in our view, it is the central issue.It is important, not just because it gives us the fullest account of the animal’swelfare, but because in some cases human caretakers may be asked to sacrificetime or money, or production performance in order to remedy putatively painorstress-related states. Indeed, in many cases this is a legislative requirement.However, priority should clearly be given to states that are most important fromthe animal’s perspective.In this chapter we will first provide definitions of pain and stress. Inparticular, we note the issue that ‘stress’ as a stand-alone generic term may notbe helpful in terms of advancing our understanding of the impact of animalmanagement on animal welfare. For cattle, as for other animals managedby humans, it is necessary to consider the source of ‘stress’ and to considerthe general and specific animal responses to different contexts and events.Secondly, we will outline the standard methods of assessing pain and stress. Wewill then present a number of new methods that are being used to assess theexperiential aspects, explain their theoretical background and how they allowus to gain a better understanding of the experience of pain and stress in cattlethan previous methods with respect to the major sources of pain and stress.Finally, we provide a case study describing a situation where these approacheshave led to clear recent improvements in practice that are having real benefitsfor animals under commercial management.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationUnderstanding the behaviour and improving the welfare of dairy cattle
EditorsMarcia Endres
PublisherBurleigh Dodds Science Publishing
Number of pages42
ISBN (Print)978-1-78676-459-1
Publication statusFirst published - 23 Feb 2021


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