The Crucial Role Of Human-Animal Relationships On Farms
The modern shift toward more intense animal farming systems has led to a common practice where farmworkers must oversee many more animals per person. The most common human-to-animal interactions on farms such as restraint, administering vaccinations, and surgical procedures can be stressful for the animals involved, especially when their prior interactions with caretakers are perceived as negative. It turns out that several caretaker characteristics and environmental factors have an effect on animal welfare and productivity. In general, research has found that employee performance depends on three main factors:
- Capacity: skills, health, ability, and knowledge
- Willingness: motivation, job satisfaction, attitude to the animals, and work attitude
- Opportunity: working conditions, actions of co-workers and organizational policies and procedures
A team of researchers from Australia and the U.S. carried out a literature review exploring how human-animal relationships impact farmed animal reproduction and welfare. They also looked into what is currently known about animal caretaker characteristics and what kind of interactions affect fear and physiological stress. In this context, the human-animal relationship (HAR) can be seen as the history of interactions between a human and an animal. These interactions influence both the person’s and the animal’s view of the relationship and guide future encounters.
Given that many procedures carried out on farms are forced and undesirable for the animals, fear responses towards humans are often induced. This is especially the case when humans are associated with the stressful procedure. Other common caretaker practices that induce fear include clapping, shouting, slapping animals to get them to move, and using sudden fast speeds. Furthermore, the emotions a farmed animal expresses are dependent on the individual animal’s interpretation of the whole situation. Here, factors such as suddenness, familiarity, predictability, and ability to exert control during the interactions play an important role. Many studies show that farmed animals are good at learning: they remember the history of previous interactions, and it influences the animal’s current perception of humans, guiding the overall relationship.
HAR can, of course, also be positive. It manifests when the animal voluntarily approaches people, seeks to be close and expresses behaviors such as anticipation, pleasure via playfulness or vocalizations such as grunts in pigs, and relaxation. Caretakers can promote positive HAR through actions such as grooming, talking to animals, and allowing exploration and play.
Although the researchers found that prolonged stress has been reported to impair reproduction in many species of animals, scientific literature assessing the direct effects of HAR is still lacking. Most studies analyzing the effect of stress on reproduction were based on laboratory experiments. The data that are available indicate that negative handling procedures imposed briefly but regularly lead to animals being fearful of humans. These animals exhibit higher concentrations of stress hormones. In contrast, gentle treatment of animals may have the opposite effect. For example, gentle stroking of cows that mimics cow-to-cow allogrooming reduces heart rates and leads to relaxed body postures and increased approach to humans. There is a theory that animals who experience positive emotions with humans may feel less stress in unfamiliar situations, too, such as veterinary inspections.
The study revealed an interesting relationship between caretaker attitudes and behavior. In one study, positive attitudes about petting and the use of verbal and physical effort to handle cows and pigs were associated with fewer negative caretaker behaviors. On the other hand, caretakers with more negative attitudes toward laying hens and their sensitivity to human contact were shown to make more noise, move faster, and spend less time stationary near hens. Caretaker attitudes have other effects beyond the animals under their care. In fact, the way people see animals may affect their job satisfaction, work motivation, and willingness to learn new skills about animals. This, of course, can lead back to poor work performance. The authors mention a study where pig farm caretakers’ willingness to attend training sessions in their own time was correlated with their attitudes toward pigs and other aspects of their work. This highlights the importance of accessible training to improve attitudes and behaviors toward farmed animals.
Knowing that HAR has an effect on farmed animal mental states, animal advocates should push the animal agriculture industry to invest in caretaker skills, knowledge, and motivation. Although animal advocates are typically more concerned with farmed animal welfare than “productivity,” the argument that positive HAR can improve productivity may convince the animal agriculture industry to take these relationships more seriously. The researchers propose that caretaker training should go beyond technical skills and knowledge, and include attitudes and behaviors when preparing people for direct interactions with farmed animals. When treated well, farmed animals often seek and enjoy interacting with humans, but the authors highlight that there still are knowledge gaps in our understanding of the effects positive HAR have on animal health and welfare.