An animal lover in the cowshed

Laura Hänninen, Vuoden dosentti, työskentelee lapsuutensa unelma-ammatissa. Eläinten hyvinvoinnin tutkija viihtyy yliopistolla ja pihatossa.

Laura Hänninen, Docent of the Year, is in her childhood dream job. She studies animal welfare and is as much at home at the University as she is at the cowshed.

Most cattle on Finnish farms have no horns, as they are thought to be a problem for either the cattle farmers or the animals themselves. Many cattle varieties grow horns naturally, but are rendered hornless through a process known as polling. The beginnings of the horns are removed from calves using a 600-degree iron, usually at the age of four weeks or less.

Most of the time, the cattle are polled under a veterinarian’s supervision, so that the calves are sedated and receive an injection to help with the pain initially. This is the recommended procedure. However, nearly half of all calves must suffer and recover from the third-degree burns with no sedation or pain relief. According to Docent Laura Hänninen, the situation is still better than she thought it would be.

At the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Hänninen studies production animal welfare, sleep quality, care and experiences of pain – including polling.

 “Now we’re studying the duration of the healing to find out how long pain relief is needed after polling. The calves benefit greatly from pain medication that lasts at least five days.”


Hänninen was three when she decided to become a veterinarian when she grew up. Growing up in an urban atmosphere in Olari, Espoo, she received a Readers’ Digest animal encyclopaedia from her grandfather as a present. They had a cat and a fish tank at home, but when a child wants to dedicate her life to animals, she does so with indiscriminate enthusiasm.

 “On rainy days it took me forever to get to school because I had to rescue all the earthworms I found and move them to the side of the road.”

Now Hänninen has a permanent teaching position in Viikki. Her title is clinical instructor in animal welfare and protection, and in addition to research, her job involves teaching prospective veterinarians about animal welfare and behaviour.

 “The first-year students come to us in May for a period of intensive teaching. With most of the teaching scheduled for the spring, it’s easier to focus on both research and teaching.”

The Faculty started to focus the teaching schedule years ago, as the courses that required a great deal of work were making it difficult for students to concentrate on their other studies. The key to welfare studies is to see the whole animal, so the courses must cover the animals’ characteristics, evolution, needs, genetics, care conditions – the whole package.

 “The teaching in animal welfare brings up conflicts between the needs of animals and the needs of the agricultural industry. Areas where animal needs are considered and ones where they aren’t. Because these conflicts exist, people who work with animals should be aware of them.”

Hänninen says that it’s also important to learn about the structure of the agriculture business. Many veterinary students have no understanding or experience of animal production –and at first, neither did Hänninen.

 “Animal husbandry is a business, and people don’t neglect animal welfare out of malice. Structures are just slow to change.”


Hänninen got into the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in 1989, on her third try. During the years between attempts, she worked in the cowshed and dog laboratory of the University of Helsinki, her future place of work.

After graduation, Laura Hänninen worked as a veterinarian for a few years.

 “Already after the first two weeks I started to think that veterinarians are treating the symptoms of disease instead of the causes.”

In the 1990s, animal welfare was not a separate discipline at the University of Helsinki. Over her four years of studies, Hänninen and her coursemates visited Sweden and participated in the Etik och etologi (“Ethics and aetiology”) course. It seemed that the field was full of interesting questions. And perhaps it would be possible to change the world. That is what Hänninen had always wanted to do.


For her dissertation, Hänninen began to study the sleep of calves. It wasn’t exactly an easy start, as the field was still quite new. Still at the beginning of this century, research would cite results from Professor Ruckebusch’s research in the 1970s where he had drilled holes into the heads of six cows.

 “We had to start from the very beginning, to decide what we would study and how.”

Hänninen’s first dissertation supervisor died of cancer while her dissertation was in the early stages. The supervisor’s husband was a neurologist at Tilkka, Helsinki’s military hospital. Hänninen went to Tilkka to observe how the sleep of sick servicemen was registered without disturbing them. The methods seemed viable, so Hänninen and her colleagues furnished the calves with snug harnesses to hold the EEG equipment.

 “The device did put out a readable signal. At that point I fortunately had no idea what kind of problems could arise in the EEG monitoring of calves. If I had known what I was getting into, I might have been discouraged before I even got started.”

Calves are active young prey animals, who do not close their eyes unless they have to, and do not express their pain. As EEG equipment is expensive and cumbersome, Hänninen began to monitor the calves’ resting behaviour and compare it to the EEG measurements. She then evaluated what the behaviour said about sleep, and what sleep said about the animal’s welfare.

 “Sleep is vital for calves, as it is for all young mammals. And this brings us back to polling. If calves receive pain relief, they rest more efficiently.”


Hänninen’s studies into the pain and sleep of animals are based on the daily work on animal farms. The researcher’s work at Viikki is far from an ivory tower. Instead of a suit and heels, Hänninen’s work outfit is more commonly overalls and rubber boots.

It’s far too rare to hear a researcher rejoice in the concrete social impact of her work. But this docent who wants to change the world is not entirely displeased with the effects her research is having on the industry. First of all, veterinary research is increasingly focused on animal behaviour and welfare. At the same time, production farms are showing encouraging progress. Or at least the cattle farms, which are Hänninen’s specialty.

 “Even twenty years ago, when we were touring farmer training sessions to talk about behaviour and welfare, the farmers were very interested. After all, they take care of the animals for a living.”

Cattle farmers have noticed that animals that are treated well are easier to handle. And they are keen to listen to researchers and the new research results they provide.

 “When somebody with a PhD comes to tell you that you should be petting your calves more to make sure they grow up to be good milking cows, people listen.”

Hänninen says there have been delightfully major improvements to the living conditions of calves. They used to be kept in small stalls in the corner of the cowshed and fed from open buckets. These days, many calves get to move freely in large loose stalls with bedding, and are allowed to suckle for milk.

 “Research changes things in small but visible increments. I believe that in five years, 95% of farms will be using pain relief in polling,” Hänninen says.

Finland is a small country, and research information gets to the farms quickly and efficiently. The farmers read industry media, and researchers often visit them to talk about new topics. Hänninen wishes Finnish politicians were as receptive as agricultural people.


In previous years, there was a common belief that Finnish farm animals are kept in excellent conditions. According to Hänninen, this is an erroneous, romanticised notion.

But it is comforting to hear that the researcher and animal lover is convinced that things are getting better. The lines of communication are open, but there is still room for improvement.

 “The popular grotesque documentary Food Inc. is a good reminder of what the food industry can become if we’re not careful. Our Daily Bread was another impressive documentary. Finland could host an animal production film festival, where researchers and other experts could debate the topic.”

When the Oikeutta eläimille animal rights organisation published photographs taken on pig farms as part of their Sikatehtaat campaign in 2011, it sparked a debate on ethics, particularly among producers and vendors.

 “Our initiative for establishing an animal welfare centre was also found, hidden away somewhere on a desk at the Ministry for Agriculture and Forestry. Now the centre is based in the room next to mine,” Hänninen points out.

Buying meat from the most questionable farms has become a liability for meat processing companies, and animal rights organisations have been invited to discuss matters with researchers and producers – and no fights have broken out. But retailers are still missing from the negotiating table.

 “The centralisation of grocery retail is a problem for animal welfare. The S and K Groups have too much sway over the production chain.”

Even though people are increasingly aware of the problems of intense production, consumers have limited power to demand more ethical meat retailers, especially if they cannot shop at the small shops in major urban centres.

Hänninen would like more opportunities for recognising animal welfare besides organic certification. Internationally such alternative certifications, such as freedom food, abound.

 “The criteria for organic production are drafted in the EU, and some of them are ridiculous. For example, the homeopathic treatment mentioned in these criteria should in no cases be used on sick animals.”


Hänninen says we should get rid of the myths that continue to surround the Finnish animal industry. First of all, she would stop using the concept of enrichment. It makes it sound like the animals are being given an extra treat. Enriched cages and stalls simply feature equipment that tries to compensate for something that the animals lack.

 “You still hear people saying that an animal that produces well, is well. This is unfortunately not true.”

Finnish farms are quite productive. Production animals have been selected through lengthy and careful breeding, with the specific goal of producing meat, milk or eggs quickly and in large quantities.

 “Of course, if an individual animal starts to produce less, it can be a sign of illness. But there are many diseases that have no impact on production, and the level of production is not necessarily an indicator for pain.”

The researcher still has work to do. When Hänninen briefly returned to practicing veterinary medicine a few years ago, she found that the field had changed little. The cowsheds were just ten years older than they had been a decade ago.

Laura Hänninen likes working at the University, and no wonder. She’s living her childhood dream, helping animals.

 “My work is rather wonderful. And I’ve decided that if your work is wonderful, you should continue at it.” 

The article was published in Finnish in the Yliopisto magazine 3/2014.