Farm Animals

Feather pecking in laying hens, a form of compulsive spectrum disorders?

The Vetsuisse Faculty in Bern is looking for an enthusiastic Master-student in biology, veterinary medicine, agricultural sciences or related disciplines for immediate appointment in the area of animal behavior/animal welfare. Millions of captive animals develop abnormal oral behavior such as crib-biting in horses, sham-chewing in sows or tongue rolling in cattle. Feather pecking is a widespread abnormal behavior in laying hens, turkeys and Muscovy ducks, where feather peckers pluck and eat feathers from their conspecifics. We study whether feather pecking in laying hens represents a form of compulsive spectrum disorders and could serve as a bird model of compulsive disorders in other animals.
The master thesis includes behavioural observations and operant learning experiments.

See Pdf for further information

Contact Dr. Bas Rodenburg

How personality traits affect cognitive bias in laying hens

Cognitive bias is a method used for assessment of affective state valence in animals, where animals in a negative emotional state tend to show a pessimistic response ("pessimists") to an ambiguous cue and animals in a positive state an optimistic response ("optimists") (Mendl et al., 2009).

In laying hens, Lee and co-workers have developed a cognitive bias test for laying hens, based on a test developed for starlings by Bateson and Matheson (2007). Here, hens learn to associate either highly positive reward (4 meal worms) or a less positive reward (1 meal worm) with a visual cue (X or Δ) combined with a 100 % grey back ground or 0% grey background (i.e. white).

Judgement bias is tested by presenting ambiguous cues by varying the % grey background (25, 50 and 75% grey) to test if these are interpreted as highly positive or less positive. It is not known, however, how personality traits affect cognitive bias in laying hens. Several behavioural tests are available to assess personality traits in laying hens, such as the open field test, the tonic immobility test and the manual restraint test. ‘Bold’ hens would show an active response in the open field at a young age (Rodenburg et al. 2004), a short tonic immobility response (reflecting reduced fearfulness) and an active response during manual restraint (Bolhuis et al. 2009), whereas ‘shy’ animals would show the opposite.

The aim of this Masters thesis project is to investigate how personality traits affect cognitive bias in laying hens.

Contact Bas Rodenburg, Caroline Lee, Marc Naguib

Pig vocalisation, KU Leuven/UGhent, Belgium

Opportunity to perform a research internship or master thesis within the framework of a project ‘the development of an automated method to monitor pig welfare and health’, funded by the Flemish government agency for Innovation by Science and Technology.

Starting the first week of September 2012. Research locations are the KU Leuven and Ghent University, Belgium. The student will participate in experiments with grower pigs and will perform behavioural observations and analysis. Experience with the software The Observer (Noldus) is preferred.

Objective: To investigate the relationship between pig vocalisation types and behavioural activities.Activities: The student participates in 3 successive experiments in grower pigs (September to mid November). Activities involve among others, weighing, saliva sampling and marking pigs for identification. Next to the experimental activities, the student starts a literature study and performs preliminary  observations to get familiar with different types of pig vocalisations and other behaviour. After the experimental period, correlations between vocalisation types and different behavioural activities are examined. Specifically, behaviour related to the welfare or health status of the animals.

For background information see attachement (Pig Vocalization) below.

Pig Vocalization

Contact person: Belgium Sanne Ott  ( Tel +32 163 +32 16 32 17 64)

WUR supervisor Bonne Beerda

Genetic aspects of temperament and behaviour in dairy cattle: an opportunity for a student who is interested in genetics/breeding and behaviour/health of dairy cows. 

Wageningen UR Livestock Research (Animal Welfare & Animal Breeding and Genetics Groups) is involved in a collaborative project with the breeding organization CRV that is focused on the genetics of dairy cow behaviour, and the importance of dairy cow temperament for production and health. Over a 4-year period, observations were obtained in 700 heifers with regard to: the behavioural response to a temperament test, behavioural activity – time budget (standing and lying behavior, recorded with the use of a three-dimensional motion sensor attached to the leg) during a 4-day period at the beginning of lactation, milk production, health and reproduction. Part of these heifers were previously subjected to a behavioural test measuring fear responses in terms of behaviour, heart rate and the stress hormone cortisol, during rearing at the age of 9 months. 

We are looking for a student who would like to be involved in the analysis of the data, with the objective to write a thesis on the results. The data analysis is specifically aimed at understanding relationships between temperament, behavioural activity (in particular the time spent lying) and milk production. In addition, we would like to examine the relationship between fear responses during rearing and temperament, production and health during first lactation. We are also interested in the heritability of behavioural traits. The analysis would build on work by a previous student who specifically focused on the behavioural test performed during rearing. Other creative ideas are welcome!

Contact: Bonne Beerda for approval and WU supervision.

For information on the project:

  • Kees van Reenen (Animal Welfare Group)
  • Mario Calus (Animal Breeding and Genetics Group)

Grazing and vigilant behaviour in coexisting wildlife and herded cattle in Shompole conservancy, Kenya (wild life research).

SLU Sweden (Jens Jung) looks for students that can start in September 2012 (data collection Kenya October 2012). Where African wildlife and human communities are living in close proximity, wildlife conservation approaches have been changing throughout the past decennia, with a shift towards the coexistence of wildlife and communities within the same area. However, some controversies surrounding the human-livestock-wildlife combination have not been solved yet. To study interactions between livestock and wildlife, it might be a good start to observe both parties for mutual (behavioural) influences. Another project uses cam tracking to collect information (body temperature and recordings) on mammals, specifically targeting areas near Hyena dens.

For more information on the projects contact, for approval and formalities Bonne Beerda.

Linking immune responses to behaviour in free-ranging layer hens (Zodiac, De Haar)

Feather pecking is an important welfare issue in commercial poultry husbandry. Its causation  is multifactorial and recently we found indications for effects of immunological activation; chickens immunized with human serum albumin (HuSA) at a young age showed more damage to their feathers in adulthood suggesting a higher occurrence of FP in these groups (Parmentier, H.K., Rodenburg, T.B., De Vries Reilingh, G., Beerda, B., Kemp, B., 2009. Does enhancement of specific immune responses predispose laying hens for feather pecking? Poultry Science 88, 536-542). Here, we are interested in the underlying mechanism that results in behavioural changes after immune activation. It is tested if immune activation induced by HuSA administration changes behavioural responses that are assumed to mirror the hierarchical control of behaviour. Also, so far we assessed the occurrence of feather pecking indirectly by plumage scoring. In the present study we will include observations of agonistic interactions to more precisely measure the problem behaviour. This allows to investigate the influence of social aspects like hierarchical structures and rank orders of individuals on feather pecking. The study provides insight in the mechanism that leads to problem behaviours in animals, and may help to better understand what causes poor welfare.  

The experiment is conducted with 144 white Leghorn laying hens (LSL white Leghorn) obtained as one-day old chickens from a registered breeding company (Verbeek Breeders, Lunteren, The Netherlands). From hatch till six weeks of age, the birds are housed in raising pens  with wood shavings as floor cover. Since, August 3th (2010), the chickens are housed in groups of 9  in enclosures that include an indoor and spacious outdoor section. Per enclosure, 5 hens are administered 1 ml PBS. Treatments are scheduled seven (primary challenge) and fourteen (secondary challenge) weeks of age. Intra-tracheal administration is performed by placing a 1.2×60 mm blunted anal canule (InstruVet, Cuijk, The Netherlands) put on a 1 ml syringe gently in the trachea of the chick. The remainder of hens are administered1 mg HuSA (A8763, Sigma Chemical Co., St. Louis, Missouri) in 0.5 ml PBS (same time and procedures as for PBS). Hens are observed for their behaviour, both during different behaviour tests (e.g. open field, tonic immobility, T-maze, memory test,..) and when being undisturbed. Plumage conditions and body weights are monitored and a number of blood samples are taken.

Contact: Bonne Beerda

posted 12-08-2010

Lameness in breeding sows 

Within the scope of the IWT "ZEUKREU" project – which aims at the development and implementation of new and effective strategies for the prevention and detection of lameness in breeding sows – I am currently looking for Master students or stagiaires that are willing to help us with behavioural data collection in the upcoming months/years. In 2011-2012 we will be working on nociception and food motivation in lame and non-lame sows here at the ILVO-DIER headquarters (Melle, Belgium). At the beginning of 2012 we will also start a longitudinal study in 10 commercial farms in Flanders (various locations) to assess the impact of managerial (static vs. dynamic groups) and behavioural parameters (i.e. aggression) on the incidence of lameness. Support for prospective students will be provided in English and Dutch but a good knowledge of English is desirable, since Dutch is not my native language. Should students be interested, please let me know. I will be more than happy to answer any questions.

Elena Nalon, B.A. (Hons), DVM. Wetenschappelijk attaché/research associate

Instituut voor Landbouw en Visserij Onderzoek / Institute for Agricultural and Fisheries Research
Eenheid Dier / Animal Sciences, Sectie Veehouderij en Dierenwelzijn / Animal Husbandry and Welfare

Scheldeweg 68, 9090 Melle, België / Belgium, tel: +32 (0)9 272 26 08,

Examples of other recent projects:

  1. Vergelijking welzijnsstatus van geïmporteerd Braziliaans versus lokaal geproduceerd Belgisch/Nederlands kippenvlees. Timing: jan – april 2011.
  2. Ontwikkeling van een on-farm test van dorst/dehydratatie bij vleeskippen (sluit aan bij het onderwerp waar Hanneke op heeft gewerkt). Timing: flexiebel (na mei 2010)
  3. Effect van boomschaduw op het welzijn en de productiviteit van melk- en zoogkoeien tijdens de beweidingsperiode. Timing: vanaf mei 2011
  4. Gebruik van schuilhokken bij grazers in natuurgebieden. Timing: vanaf mei 2011
  5. Ontwikkelen van innovatieve en meer sensitieve methoden voor het scoren van klauw- en pootproblemen bij zeugen. Timing: vanaf begin 2011

For more information : (tel: +32 (0)9 272 26 05)

WUR contact : Bonne Beerda