Need v. want: Do animals know what’s good for them?

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head-eye-stockSeveral equine specials are among the speakers at this year’s Australian Veterinary Association’s annual conference, taking place over six days in May.

Among the equine topics are injuries in horses, anaesthesia, pain management, joint therapy and fractures, respiration, dentistry and dermatology. Keynote speaker for the equine sessions at the conference is Dr Lori Bidwell, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Anesthesia and Analgesia who is certified in veterinary acupuncture. Bidwell also competes on the US hunter/jumper circuit with her two horses.

Dr Lori Bidwell
Dr Lori Bidwell

Bidwell is taking nine sessions, all focusing on anaesthesia and pain management. Other equine speakers include Todd Booth, Ian Fulton, Samantha Franklin, Ben Ahern, and Gary Wilson.

Dr Andrew Fisher from the University of Melbourne will examine how well an animal’s behaviour aligns with what’s ‘good’ for it in terms of health, nutrition or productivity.

“In behaviour studies, ‘animal preference’ can tell us what an animal wants and ‘behavioural demand’ tells us how much it wants it. So, it would seem reasonable to assume that by providing an animal with what it really desires, we’ll be making it feel better and improve its welfare. However, preference and demand studies may not necessarily be informing us of what’s in the animal’s best interests,” Dr Fisher said.

For example, in a study conducted by other researchers, examining preference and demand of pigs for varying concentrations of sweet solutions, a number of pigs drank so much sugar solution that they vomited. After recovering, they again continued to drink large amounts of the sugar solution.

Dr Fisher explains, “Usually these problems occur when animals are offered an appealing short-term choice, but will result in adverse consequences for its longer-term welfare.

“These problems can be avoided if biological studies are used in conjunction with behavioural studies. It’s also important to ensure the options presented represent realistic and sensible animal husbandry practices. Obviously, sugar solution wouldn’t normally be a viable major feedstuff for pigs!”

According to Dr Fisher, another problem area to consider is animals making choices based on reasons unknown to the researcher conducting the investigation.

“It’s quite common for animals to make a choice based on previous experience. For example, in some studies, hens managed in battery cages preferred this environment to free range because it’s what they’d grown accustomed. Their behaviour in this instance doesn’t reflect the reality that a free range run is often the better option for their welfare.

Dr Andrew Fisher
Dr Andrew Fisher

Dr Fisher also warns of the risk of misinterpreting results from preference and demand studies.

“The greater the complexity of the study, the greater the risk of misconstruing the results.

“Evidence shows that appropriately designed preference and demand studies, when paired with biological data, can provide valuable insight into animal perceptions and needs. But, great care needs to be used in the design and interpretation of studies if they’re going to be used as indicators of welfare,” he said.

The AVA annual conference is being held 22-27 May at the Adelaide Convention Centre.

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