Behavioural Physiology

Many animal welfare problems in farm and companion animals arise from a mismatch between the animals’ adaptive capacity and the (housing and handling) conditions they are exposed to. We investigate behavioural and physiological processes as affected by genetic background, early life conditions and characteristics of the current environment. Our work is mainly conducted in pigs, chickens and dogs.

Farm animals

Many welfare and health problems in farm animals arise from a mismatch between the animals’ adaptive capacity and the (housing and handling) conditions they are exposed to. We investigate how genetic background, early life conditions and characteristics of the current environment influence behavioural and physiological processes that reflect or affect animal welfare, health and productivity. Our work ranges from fundamental to applied research, and focuses mainly on pigs and chickens. Research is often conducted in collaboration with groups within the Department of Animal Sciences or the Centre of Animal Welfare and Adaptation (CAWA), and groups outside Wageningen University.


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Research topics we are currently working on include:

1. Individual (personality) traits affecting (social) behaviour and coping with challenges

Examples: Personality traits of pigs that develop damaging behaviours (including tail biting). Effects of including social genetic effects in breeding on pig behaviour and welfare.

2. Effects of feed(ing) strategies on behaviour and welfare

Examples: How to facilitate the development of independent feeding in piglets in order to reduce weaning-related problems. Effects of fibrous foods on satiety and behaviour in pigs.

3. Effects of early life conditions on behavioural development

Examples: Impact of environmental enrichment and alternative (farrowing and) rearing systems.

4. Influence of social interactions on behaviour and welfare

Examples: Impact of emotional contagion, social support, social learning, affective and damaging behaviours on behaviour and welfare.


Companion animals  

For companion animals the focus of the Adaptation Physiology Group, in collaboration with the Behavioural Ecology Group, is on dogs, investigating personality traits, human-dog relationships and welfare. Research with cats focusses on welfare and motivation (wanting, liking), typically in relation to the appraisal of foods. Research is often conducted in collaboration with other chairs of the Department of Animal Sciences, and companies or institutions outside Wageningen University & Research.

We are interested in the question how personality traits of an individual pet affects its (not so) social behaviour and ability to perform specific tasks, and how the humans to whom a pet is attached play a role. The objective assessment of mental states (feelings) and the traits that govern behaviour is one of the major challenges in our on-going work. Research results aid the understanding of how companion animals cope with man-made living conditions and how the latter may be optimized to improve companion animal welfare.

Research topics we are currently working on include:

1. Behavioural profiling (e.g. what makes a good assistance dog, are impaired cognitive abilities conducive to fear-aggression)

2. The role of owner-dog relationships in dogs expressing problem behaviour

3. Task performance effects on the welfare of working dogs

4. The identification and assessment of intra-specific aggression in dogs

5. Developing behaviour tools for assessing aspects of food appraisal in cats