We need to understand how farm animals learn

“I am a biopsychologist, specialised in animal behaviour and neuroanatomy. We look at fundamental behaviour, physiology and brain development of farm animals, generally from the perspective of animal welfare. Our focus is on pigs and chickens, but we also have a project with sheep running.

"We look at more complex learning and memory functions and try to understand how farm animals learn, what they can and cannot learn, as well as at emotions in these animals. We have a responsibility to know more about learning and emotions in farm animals. Right now, we know far too little.

The right kind of test
“In order to design experiments to really figure out why animals are showing specific behaviour, you have to be able to look at things from the animal's perspective. If an animal isn’t showing learning in your test, it may be because the test is too difficult, but it also may be that it is the wrong kind of task for that kind of animal. The same is true for emotions. Most farm animals are prey, which means they are hunted, not hunters. This means that showing fear or pain makes you extra vulnerable, so they have evolved not to show these emotions. It can be a puzzle to figure out how you can study the emotions that are under the surface in animals.

Early life and the long term
"We focus on perinatal events. This means events during late pregnancy, around birth or during early life. We test the long term effects of housing and management during early life in farm animals. We have looked at, for instance, iron deficiency and at low birth weight in pigs. What long term effects does low birth weight have on later development? That's also potentially useful information for human medicine, because piglets around birth are also very good models for human neonates. Animal welfare is our main focus, but when possible, we study questions that are important to both veterinary and human medicine.

Understanding farm animals
"We as a society know a lot about farm animal production and how to keep farm animals healthy, but very little about their learning and memory and their brain development. What are the long term effects of management practices and housing on the individual chicken, pig or cow? We should understand animals better to be able to make evidence-based decisions, in terms of management practices and policies for the future.

Making evidence-based decisions to improve welfare
"It's important to look into the learning and emotions of farm animals, animals which are so much part of our daily lives. We need to know what kind of intelligence they have and how that may be related to their welfare. We are at the very start of this chain. One could easily spend a lifetime trying to know the drive or mental abilities of farm animals. Research helps us base our decisions on how to keep them on the animals’ needs, not what we guess their needs might be."

Rebecca Nordquist