The influence of human-animal interaction on animal well-being

Gaining a deeper understanding of animal well-being and how it can be implemented at the farm level is essential to reconnecting humans and food-producing animals. Industry experts need to meet, discuss and exchange knowledge on a regular basis to get this understanding. The Expert Forum on Farm Animal Well-Being,  initiated by Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health, pursues this objective. Experts and researchers from across the globe come together to share their latest insights on how we as a collective industry can improve the well-being of livestock animals.

Two highland cows in nature

How humans interact with livestock is essential for animal well-being. Stockpeople, who are looking after livestock, have the most contact with their animals and likely impact them most. This relationship is influenced by various factors, as Elena de Torres from the Animal University of the Republic of Uruguay explains. “The attitude of a stockperson is related to their past experiences, culture, knowledge, personality, and motivation. All these factors affect human-animal relations.”  

”When we handle animals in a negative way, it influences their behavior, and they become more fearful. This makes handling stressful for the stock person and the animal, and it becomes a cycle of negative behavior which has to be cut,” adds Dr. Maria Camila Ceballos from the University of Calgary. She emphasizes that negative handling is usually not intentional but often stems from a lack of knowledge. The training of stockpeople is therefore essential. 

Man holding a microphone during a panel discussion
Researchers and experts at the 13th Expert Forum on Farm Animal Well-Being in Edinburgh, UK. 

How new technologies can support 

While human-animal interactions are crucial to the well-being of animals, novel technologies could support farmers and stock people better understand how the animals in their care may feel and how healthy they are. In recent decades, the relationship between humans and livestock animals, particularly dairy cows, has changed a lot, says Christopher H. Knight, Emeritus Professor at the University of Copenhagen. With growing farms and an increasing number of animals on each farm, it becomes more difficult to tell the animals apart. Where farmers could identify each cow on their smaller farms with fewer animals, computer-based technologies can now support larger farms with many cows in identifying each animal. Knight explains: “We have technologies that identify our animals for us and monitor their activity. Beyond that, they have the potential to estimate their metabolic state and detect derivations from normal physiology.” One example is Computing Assisted Livestock Management (CALM). This approach aims to transform technology from well-established tools detecting the cyclical variation in the reproductive phase of cows to an entire management support system for farmers.   

Recognizing animal pain by analyzing facial expressions is another promising approach currently being developed. The idea that emotions can be seen in facial expressions in humans and animals is not new. It was Darwin who already proposed in 1872 that emotions such as fear or happiness are not only present in human cultures but also in animals. But truly identifying when an animal is in pain is not easy. Ruminants, for example, are described as stoical species that avoid showing signs of distress. But this area, too, offers great potential for novel technologies. “Studies have shown that it is possible for computer vision to identify emotions in animals,” shares Professor Marie Haskell from SRUC (Scotland es Rural College). This face detection technology could enable farmers and veterinarians to identify pain in cattle by interpreting certain facial characteristics such as tightening eyes or tension in the nostrils. Being able to identify pain in animals will ultimately contribute to the improvement of their well-being.  

Man speaking into a microphone
Dr. Laurent Goby, Senior Global Marketing Manager at Boehringer Ingelheim 

These technologies and examples presented at the Expert Forum on Farm Animal Well-Being help to comprehend the holistic nature of farm animal well-being. Adopting a holistic approach is crucial to reconnecting humans with farm animals in an era of changing consumer views and expectations. “Forums like this play a fundamental role in bringing together the finest global research to help educate and inspire those responsible for implementing welfare strategies on farms,” comments Dr. Laurent Goby, Senior Global Marketing Manager at Boehringer Ingelheim.

About the Expert Forum on Farm Animal Well-Being 

The Expert Forum on Farm Animal Well-Being brings together veterinarians, producers, scientists, and industry advocates from across the globe to tackle some of the biggest, most challenging topics in farm animal well-being and to look at how the most recent research may help shape positive change going forward. The Expert Forum is hosted by Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health and was initiated in 2008. In 2022, over 80 delegates from 17 countries came together in Edinburgh for the 13th edition of the conference to discuss how to reconnect humans with food-producing animals, from a consumer’s, a farmer’s, a veterinarian’s, or even a cow’s point of view. More information: www.farmanimalwellbeing.com