Research methods

Animal welfare research is based on fundamental knowledge of specie-spesific behaviour and physiology. By applying this information to animals under human care, we investigate how environmental and management factors affect the welfare of domestic animals.
Animal welfare research is performed experimentally in laboratories, as well as on-farm, or applying epidemiological methods.

ETHOGRAMS AND PHYSIOLOGY

An ethogram is a detailed description of animal behaviour patterns, used for coding and describing behaviours. Fundamental information about animal behaviour is gathered by observing domestic animals, or their feral or wild relatives in natural habitats. In order to make conclusions on the welfare of animals under human care, we need knowledge on their natural behavioural patterns and needs. Some examples of important behaviours include social, and feeding behaviour, resting, communication and maternal behaviour. We also need information about cognitive abilities of the animals, and about the expression of emotions. In addition to behaviour, it is important to understand the normal physiology of the animals we study, including, for example, endocrinology and immunology.

WHAT THEY NEED AND HOW THEY FEEL?

It is challenging to estimate animal welfare, as the aim is to describe animal experiences. In others words, we develop methods to ask the animal itself, as directly and objectively as possible, how the animal feels and what it needs. Thus, it is no wonder that animal welfare science requires multidisciplinary co-operation.

Basic tools for estimating animal welfare include behavioural observations and different validated behavioural tests. Deviations from "normal" behaviour, such as apathy or increased aggression, may indicate reduced level of animal welfare due to, for example, problems in the environment the animal is kept in. Other such signs include different behavioural disorders, such as tongue rolling in cattle or tail biting in pigs. Behavioural tests give us information on preferences of the animals, or tell us how much the animals are willing to work to get access to resources. Behavioural tests can also be designed to investigate animal cognition and emotional reactions.

Deviations in physiology, such as stress-induced hormonal changes, increased body temperature and pulse, are also important to record. Long-term stress may cause severe, and often permanent, changes, such as stomach ulcers, immunosuppression and loss of production. Therefore, changes in fertility, growth and health are important additional measures, while these production outcomes are too crude to be used as sole measures of animal welfare.