Are pigs smart, and if so, how smart? This is a question often asked by the general public and knowing more about animal cognition also helps us understand how best to manage animals in our care. In order to help answer this question, Becky, Richard and Chris from Oxford Scientific films spent the day with us at the University of Leeds farm last Tuesday (17th of July) filming pigs. Becky and the team were keen to show off the range of cognitive abilities pigs possess and the pigs, it turns out, were keen to show off their skills!
We started the day off by filming the problem-solving abilities of pigs, which showcased their flexible behaviour and quick learning skills. We had an array of 3 puzzle boxes that opened in various different ways. Our first volunteer pig had never seen the puzzles before the day of filming (very brave on our behalf!), but she quickly figured out how to open all three boxes, and the film crew were very impressed!
Then it was onto the next task, which demonstrated spatial problem solving. In this “detour task”, the animal has to figure out how to get to a visible reward by initially walking away from the reward and around a detour to access it. This proved no problem for our second willing volunteer and the film crew got some great footage of her figuring out the problem.
Finally, it was onto the pointing task. Here we were aiming to show how pigs can use human-given cues to access a hidden food reward. We got some great shots of the pigs following the pointing gesture to the bowl in which the food was hidden. After the long days’ filming, the pigs headed off for a well-deserved mud bath (see photo below!) while the film crew wrapped up.
Lisa, Annika, Emily and I thoroughly enjoyed our day outside in the sun filming with the pigs and we are looking forward to seeing the results on TV next year. We don’t know the screening date yet but watch this space for more information!
Some of our soon-to-be TV stars!
At the beginning of July the STRAYS team returned to Pescara, Abruzzo (Italy) to continue the long-term mark-recapture study of the local free-roaming dog population. This is the second of five data collections which will take place over a one year period in this area. Many of the dogs sighted during the first survey in April were sighted again (including the sleepy dog photographed in an earlier blog post). They were easily recognised, despite some shedding off their coats to deal with the warmer temperatures at this time of year. This is a photographic mark-recapture study, meaning that all dogs observed are catalogued so we can track their presence/absence in future studies. Using mathematical formula, this method allows us to estimate how many dogs live in this area and how many dogs enter/leave during the one year study.
The STRAYS team have now arrived in Lviv and are looking forward to seeing if the same individuals are sighted in the study areas here again!
Part two of the STRAYS fieldwork has now started! This time, the team have travelled to Lviv (Ukraine) to collect data and observe the city's street dogs. The team did not have to wait long to see their first dog, shortly after arriving the black and white dog (bottom left) was spotted stealing some meat from the rubbish bin! In Lviv, the local Community Enterprise, in addition to the Stray Animal Care team at Vier Pfoten, capture, neuter and release/rehome (CNR) free-roaming dogs in this area. After capture, the dogs are marked with a coloured ear tag to show their neutering/vaccination status. The team have been surveying these local dogs early in the morning, noting those which have been through the CNR programme and recording information about the dog's location and condition. The team have now become familiar with a few of the local dogs, spotting them on more than one occasion. The team will spend another week in Lviv, before returning to the University of Leeds to analyse the collected data - more updates to come!
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to record an interview with The Pig Site to promote the PigSustain project. This website is a great source of information on everything pig related, from the latest research on health and welfare to market trends and future directions for pork production. To learn more about progress to date on PigSustain and our future plans for investigating resilience and sustainability in the UK pig industry, check out the video below:
Most people working in research understand that the work often includes hours spent behind a desktop, with your head stuck in books or staring at excel worksheets. It is incredibly rewarding when you can get away from the desk and actually spend time with the animals you are studying. This is especially rewarding when you start to recognise individuals, how they interact with each other and you see their characters coming out! STRAYS has now begun a project in Italy where we will be studying the community dogs over the next year. Over the last few days, the team have found some charming dogs within the Pescara Province of Abruzzo. The community dogs here are under the responsibility of the town mayor and after the dogs have been neutered and vaccinated by the local veterinary health unit, they are released back to their territory. The team have been conducting surveys of these dogs in the early mornings, at a time when the town is most peaceful. During our surveys, we have seen the dogs travelling around the town, using pedestrian crossings(!), sniffing and interacting with the other community dogs along their way. One particular dog which has charmed us, is this hairy sleepy boy (photograph below). He was very relaxed and mostly slept as we observed him. We have seen this dog in a couple of surveys now and it will be interesting to see if he is still here when we return in a few months!
The STRAYS team will also be studying the street dogs of Ukraine in a few weeks, so watch this space for more updates as the study progresses!
Our new paper based on the epidemiology of canine osteoarthritis went live online this morning! The paper entitled ‘Prevalence, duration and risk factors for appendicular osteoarthritis in a UK dog population under primary veterinary care’ was conducted as one part of my MRes project, using the VetcompassTM database. Using veterinary primary-care electronic patient records, information was gathered to provide epidemiological data for canine osteoarthritis. The key findings for this paper include prevalence, duration of and risk factors for development of osteoarthritis in UK dogs.
Of 455,557 study dogs, we identified 16,437 candidate osteoarthritis cases through a combination of search terms to highlight potential cases. 6104 (37%) of these were manually checked and 4196 (69% of sample) were confirmed as cases. Further data on demography, clinical signs, duration and management were extracted for a proportion of these confirmed cases. Estimated annual period prevalence of appendicular osteoarthritis was calculated at 2.5% equating to around 200,000 UK affected dogs annually. Risk factors associated with osteoarthritis diagnosis included breed (e.g. Labrador, Golden Retriever), being insured, being neutered, of higher bodyweight and being older than six years. Duration calculation trials suggest osteoarthritis affects 11% of affected individuals’ lifespan. These findings provide evidence that osteoarthritis can have a substantial impact on canine welfare at the individual and population level, and should not be overlooked as a disorder in veterinary medicine!
The paper is available via open access at www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-23940-z
In the tranquil surroundings of the University of Reading campus, on the 11th of January, we held our first annual stakeholder meeting for the PigSustain project. This was a very exciting time for the PigSustain team, as it was our first chance to showcase all of the hard work we have been putting into the project since we began almost a year ago! We had a great turnout, with representatives of the industry from farm to fork – producers, processors, vets and retailers, as well as policy makers and assurance schemes.
The morning kicked off with short presentations from each work package on the progress made over the course of our first year. I think I can safely say that everyone was very impressed with the amount of work and effort that has been put in so far. We are already starting to get exciting results from the consumer demand for pork analysis and the progress on the development of the automatic detection system had everyone very excited!
After a quick coffee we had a great talk from Prof Sandra Edwards, who had made the long trip down from her beachside residence in Scotland! Prof Edwards talked about developing measures sustainability in pig production and we discussed how we might use these on PigSustain.
With lunch over and everybody suitably caffeinated, it was time for a bit of audience participation in the afternoon. Firstly, we had Dr John Ingram (GFS Coordinating group, Oxford University) set the scene by inviting us to think about Resilience. PigSustain aims to predict the impacts of intensification and future changes on UK pig industry resilience. However, assessing resilience turns out to be much trickier than we might have thought. Resilience of what, to what, for whom and for how long were questions that John had us pondering over in relation to the UK pig industry in the afternoon workshops. We had lively discussions and great insights from all of the stakeholders and the project team was very busy keeping record of all the information so that we can feed it into our systems model!
The day ended with a lovely meal out in Reading with those who could make it. Overall, we were delighted with the meeting and the enthusiasm of the stakeholders. This has given us a great boost of energy to start off our 2nd year of this 4-year project. With a massive thanks to everyone involved and watch this space for more developments in 2018 on PigSustain!
Wow - what a busy few months we've had here in Leeds with lots of conferences, data acquisition and field trips to keep us busy! However, our most exciting development is having Emily Bushby, our new PhD student, join us - Emily will be blogging soon about her move from Lincoln and submitting her Masters thesis!
After a jam-packed summer, last week we found ourselves in the peaceful surroundings of the Peak District for a wonderful few days at Walks and Talks. Walks and Talks is an annual event aimed at early career researchers in Animal Welfare. The concept is simple: short presentations in the morning and a lovely, long walk in the afternoon, with a chance to network and chat to people more about their work. We heard about a range of topics from how people choose their pets, to separation anxiety behaviours in dogs, to the effects of teeth clipping in piglets and walked 10km from the beautiful village of Ilam.
With huge thanks to Natalie Chancellor (Royal Veterinary College) for organising and watch this space for the Yorkshire Walks and Talks in 2018!
The group at Ilam Hall. Photo: Dale Sandercock.
I have always found it interesting how different the onomatopoeias used to describe animal noises are in different languages. And so, I made it a little side project during my pilot field trip to Bulgaria to find out exactly what noise a Bulgarian dog makes!
The (true!) purpose of my trip was to carry out a pilot study and meet the Four Paws stray animal care team, who work in a clinic on the outskirts of Sofia City neutering and providing veterinary care to owned and stray dogs in this region. In the UK, if a dog were to roam the streets without an owner the dog might be thought of as a "lost pet". However, in Bulgaria, it is not unusual to regularly see dogs freely roaming the streets. A proportion of these dogs have owners, however many are stray. In my pilot field trip I have been testing out methods which will allow us to estimate the size of this free-roaming dog population, as well as giving us information about how many of these dogs are neutered, how healthy they are, along with other demographic data. This meant pretty unsociable 5am street surveys to count and record this information! However, the early starts were worth it to observe these animals at a time when the city was at its most peaceful.
Overall, the pilot trip was a success and planning for future field trips have commenced. Watch this space!
And the noise that a Bulgarian dog makes? Not too dissimilar to our barking dogs in the UK - "баф баф" (or baf baf)!
Last week I got the fantastic news that my first paper was now live on Science Direct, published in the Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science. I can tell you that this really was an amazing feeling! The process of writing for publication is certainly not without its challenges, but is essential in ensuring that the research we do has the impact intended.
This paper makes up one part on my PhD looking at individual differences in pain behaviour in non-human animals. Pain especially chronic pain, in non-human animals can be hard to recognise and treat, as such the broad aim of my PhD is to have a clearer understanding of what characteristics in non-human animals (not related to disease severity) might affect the pain behaviour they show.
The paper entitled ‘Emotional affect and the occurrence of owner reported health problem in the domestic dog’ is based on the results we got from a broader online survey of dog owners looking at their dog’s behaviour and health. We specifically investigated whether dogs with and without current painful conditions could be differentiated by their mood state.
Our findings suggest that dogs who had current painful conditions showed lower levels of positive affect. Positive affective states are characterised by positive emotions and interactions, such as; play, alertness, excitement, and energy. Therefore, our results suggest that painful experiences in dogs may have a detrimental effect on their mood state. Pain is a common sign in many illnesses, in both dogs and other animals, these findings really highlight how important it is to focus on the influence that individual differences can have on health-related behaviour.
If you are interested in keeping up to date with more findings from my PhD, as well as keeping up to date with our research lab please also consider following me on Twitter @sjreaney