November 25, 2008

Animal behaviour and welfare: General


Learning: Teaching: Pain & suffering: Problem analysis: Human-animal relations

By Dr Clive Dalton

Learning and teaching
There's plenty of evidence that animals can learn from simple to complex routines and it's clearly easier for them to learn things related to the innate behaviour of their species.

When we want to teach animals routines or change their behaviour, then a number of standard methods can be used:
  • Classical conditioning by repeat presentation of a "conditioned stimulus" with an "unconditioned stimulus".
  • Operant or instrumental conditioning by offering constant reinforcing stimuli with a reward.
  • Habituation by learning not to respond to repeated stimuli. There is lack of reinforcement following the response, e.g. so the animal will eventually ignore the stimulus.
  • Latent learning by using curiosity and exploration. It's learning without a clear reward. The learned behaviour is not expressed but lies latent.
  • Insight learning by the animal seeing a solution immediately. For example the chimp that got the bananas by using a short stick to reach long stick to reach the banana.
  • Imprinting. The classical work here is Lorenz and his geese. Birds follow the first thing they see after hatching and it was Lorenz on whom they were imprinted for the rest of their lives
More comment - Classical Conditioning (CC)
This is one of the main ways we teach animals, and it's the basis of a lot of animal retraining or correction. It was made famous by Pavlov and his dog experiments. Here is what he did:
  • Dogs salivate when they see food and it's an easy visual response which is an innate behaviour of dogs.
  • Pavlov rang a bell when the dog was fed.
  • Eventually the dog would salivate for the bell anticipating the arrival of food.
  • When not fed, the dog eventually stopped salivating for the bell.
  • This is called "extinction" of a learned response.
  • Fed again with the bell and the stimulus was reversed back to the food.
  • A period of "association" is built between the two stimuli (old and new) for long enough so the new one becomes learned and appears to be instinctive.
  • Before the animal shows an extinction behaviour, it may increase it's response to test if it will be rewarded before giving up. This is called an "extinction burst" and can be serious, e.g. cat pushing ornaments off to get attention.
  • Many classical conditioning responses are complex and hence difficult to solve. This is where there is more than one stimulus involved - some of which you may not be aware of.
  • In academic terms CC uses the relationship between a "response" and a "conditioned stimulus" (CS).
  • The response works because it is caused by an "unconditioned stimulus" (UCS) - such as something that is innate.
  • You then use the CS to trigger the UCS.
  • A very important point is that you do NOT use "rewards" given by the handler to get a response.
More comment - Operant Conditioning (OC)
  • This was made famous by a researcher called Skinner who used the "Skinner box" where rats were trained by a mild electric shock. When they failed to respond they got a shock and when successful they got a feed.
  • Electric shocks were not essential which he demonstrated in other experiments with pigeons. When faced with two choices they got grain for a positive response and no grain for a negative one.
  • Many other experiments have been carried out with poultry to select different kinds of cage environments and with large farm animals where they have been trained to press nose pads to make choices between feeds.
  • Note that Operant Conditioning works using rewards. These can range from food, fussing, patting, play, voice tone, access to favourite areas, being allowed to explore or mix with mates, and many more.
  • Rewards must be given at the same time as the response to be learned or within seconds afterwards. Similarly reprimands must be instant, and preferably not associated by the animal to the owner.
  • Only when the response is well learned can the frequency of rewards be gradually reduced. You need to keep an occasional reward going to maintain anticipation and interest.
  • A good example of this is the use of a "clicker" for training animals. The animal is trained with food rewards along with a click, and then the click on it's own will get the response. The association between food and click can be reinforced at required intervals if the response drops off. Clicker training is used for dogs and horses.
Pain and suffering
  • This is a very important area of animal behaviour and welfare and has huge legal implications when prosecutions have to be made under the law. For further information see the MAF Code of Welfare No. 17. Care and use of animals for scientific purposes - p. 38.
Fears and phobias

Some fears are essential for survival but when extreme become phobias. When threatened mammals have four major defence responses:
  • Flight - withdraw from the threat.
  • Immobility - crouch and lies still to avoid detection.
  • Deflection/appeasement - actively submit to the attacker.
  • Fight - defensive aggression to attacker Some phobias seem to be partly caused by innate sensitivity e.g. animals with snakes. But many phobias contain a learned component. It can be a "conditioned reaction" to a fearful experience.
  • Phobias cannot be cured by repeated exposure to the full stimulus. They can however be "unlearned" by "systematic desensitisation using very mild exposures to the cause so as not to create anxiety. This is gradually increased until the full stimulus can be accepted.

Growth and Development
  • Growth, development and age have an important effect on animal behaviour and welfare so it's important to realise how animals grow.
  • Growth takes the form of an S-shaped curve starting at conception, moving slowly to birth and then rapidly up through puberty to slow down at maturity.
  • After conception the brain and central nervous system (CNS) have first call on nutrients provided by the mother. In the last weeks of pregnancy the foetus increases in weight.
  • From birth through puberty to maturity tissues grow in order of bone, muscle then finally fat. But this can vary with feed supply as fat can be laid down in young animals if fed on a very high plane of nutrition. During this growth body proportions change.
This is a critical phase and can be traumatic for both dam and offspring.

Dam problems

  • Paralysis
  • Retained foetal membranes (RFM)
  • Delayed return to normal breeding - anoestrus
  • Bonding
  • Uterine infections
  • Teat and udder problems
Offspring problems:
  • Hypothermia (37C drop to zero)
  • Exposure/Starvation
  • Dystocia
  • Teat seeking problems
  • Bonding
  • Mismothering and neglect
  • This is the age of sexual maturity and when sexual behaviour starts.
  • The animal has innate mating instincts but it still has to learn and practice to be effective.
  • Puberty is dictated more by live weight than age.
  • Genetics are involved as animals have been selected by farmers for early or late sexual maturity.
  • Territorial issues start to be seen.
  • Hierarchy issues start to apply.
  • Here animals reach mature weight expressing their genetic potential.
  • If of large size and weight, this may pose mating problems.
  • There are many diseases of old age:
  • Arthritis
  • Cancer
  • Kidney failure
  • Feet
  • Teeth
  • Obesity
  • Failing sight
  • Low appetite
  • Low libido and mating problems
  • There are people problems, e.g. aging pets, death and dignified disposal.
  • There are marketing issues, e.g. deciding on slaughter weights to fit market needs.
Analysing a behaviour problem
  • When faced with an animal behaviour "problem", there are many aspects to be examined before a conclusion can be drawn and a solution formulated. Here are some things that must be done first:
  • Interview the person who has the "animal problem" and take detailed notes. Listen to what they see as the problem. List what they have tried, how they did it and what happened.
  • Was the problem obvious?
  • Did it appear to be simple or complex? Observe the situation in detail with an open mind.
  • Make detailed record or what the animal does and what happens in the environment. This is called an "ethogram".
  • Form a hypothesis - what you think is the problem, and then try to test this to confirm that your conclusions were correct.
Check list
The human (companion animal owner)
  • What basic knowledge do they have about the animal?
  • What is their age and how active are they?
  • Their sex?
  • Marital status – its stability and length of relationship?
  • The people in the client's hierarchy?
  • Has this changed recently?
  • Who in the household has most interaction with the animal?
  • Is this the truth – e.g. Is someone else quietly feeding it?
  • Children - the number, their ages and sex?
  • How do these kids get on with each other? Is there an aggressive hierarchy among the kids?
  • House - the size and the area the animal may be allowed in and who sets these rules?
  • Garden - the size and how important it is to the owner, and any restrictions for the animal?
  • The general "lifestyle" of the family and the part the animal plays in this?
The human (farm animal owner)
  • Who is “the farmer”?
  • Who says they are the farmer but who is making the decisions?
  • Their sex? e.g. Is it Mum or Dad, or the sons/daughters who are in control of stock management?
  • What is the general attitude to animals on the farm?
  • What is the state of the property e.g. general tidiness?
  • What is the current feed status and are there any feed reserves?
  • Are there plans for an emergency e.g. Floods or snow storms?
  • What is the economic status of the business?
  • What’s the owner’s attitude to “regulations and authorities”?
  • What’s their attitude to their veterinarian?
  • How stressed does the owner(s) appear?
  • How well cared for are the family pets?
The animal
  • What species - keeping in mind species-specific behaviour and innate ability.
  • Breed - its importance in size, tractability and living space needed.
  • Age - young an active or geriatric and sedentary.
  • Sex- entire or desexed and at what age was it done?
  • Hierarchy - where does the animal appear to fit in the family, flock or herd?
  • Diet- what is the diet or feed supply and have there been changes?
  • Are there sources of feed for emergencies?
  • Exercise - how much exercise is allowed?
  • Territory- what is the size of the "home range"?
  • What information do you need to collect to solve the problem? (An ethogram)

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