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Understanding animals to improve their welfare

21 July 2005

An £8M programme of research to improve our understanding of the science of animal welfare has been announced by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Three projects aim to obtain a fundamental insight into the environmental biology, mental experiences, pain and physical health of farm and laboratory animals, to investigate how these are affected by an animal’s early experiences, and to develop better ways of environmental management and welfare assessment.

The coordinated and complementary programmes of research involve researchers from some of the UK’s veterinary schools and associated institutions with a track record in animal welfare science. The projects will include: assessment of welfare, the impact of stress in the womb and early life, pain mechanisms, cognition and perception, and animals’ interaction with their environment. The initiative is aimed at producing knowledge that will lead to a better understanding of how to improve the quality of animals’ lives.

Professor Julia Goodfellow, BBSRC Chief Executive, said, “Animal welfare is not just an ethical issue. Good welfare for livestock makes good economic sense by improving productivity and the quality of products.”

The three projects are:

Advancing Animal Welfare Science: welfare assessment and early life programming
University of Bristol, University of Oxford and Royal Veterinary College

Science evidence can bring important objectivity to often heated debates about animal welfare which may be driven by ethical and political concerns. But measuring an animal’s welfare – its physical and mental health – is not easy. How, for instance, can we know the mental experiences of other animals?

The research group from Bristol, Oxford and RVC aims to improve our understanding of this difficult question. Group members will apply knowledge from studies of human mental health to animals, and use mathematical techniques to see which physical symptoms are the best indicators of an animal’s mental health. They will also use new video imaging techniques to develop early warning systems for outbreaks of welfare problems on farms, and investigate how experiences of young animals affect their welfare later in life.

Professor Michael Mendl, leader of the research project, said, “Accurately measuring and monitoring animal welfare is very difficult, but new techniques are opening up new possibilities. We hope to make real improvements in our understanding of what other animals experience, and in predicting and preventing the onset of welfare problems.”

Perinatal programming of stress response and nociceptive mechanisms, and the welfare consequences
University of Edinburgh, University of Glasgow, Scottish Agricultural College and Roslin Institute

There is increasing evidence that early life events (including conditions before birth) can have important long-term effects on offspring. Many farm animals routinely experience such early life events including stress before birth or for example, tail-docking in the first days of life. The team will investigate how animals react to these experiences and what impact they may have on the ability of the developing offspring to cope with later stressful challenges and on their overall quality of life. The team will also consider whether a genetic component is involved and, if so, look at opportunities for combining genetic and management strategies to enhance welfare.

Professor Susan Fleetwood-Walker, leader of the research project, said, “Our research will help to focus attention on the need to avoid adverse early life challenges to animals in order to ensure their future health and welfare and optimise their quality of life. We see one outcome of our research being standards to cover periods of risk for the developing foetus and young neonate. Clearly understanding the interaction between genetics and the early environment will be the key to the way forward in this area”.

Welfare of farm animals: Environmental perception, cognition, interaction and management of pigs and fowl
Royal Veterinary College

The physical and social environments in which pigs and fowl are reared on farms are very different to their natural habitats. The RVC programme aims to quantify, model, predict and control the biological and physical interactions between housed pigs and fowl and their physical and social environments.

Professor Christopher Wathes, leader of the project, said, “Provision of an optimal environment is essential for good welfare. This programme will provide new insights into the environmental biology of pigs and poultry, thereby underpinning the development of sustainable livestock production systems for these species in which welfare and health are promoted, pollutant emissions are minimised and tight product specifications are met profitably.”

The RVC-based project will include researchers transferring from the BBSRC-sponsored Silsoe Research Institute.

The three projects of the Animal Welfare Programme have synergies and it is intended that there will be a high degree of co-operation and interaction between the groups and, where appropriate, other animal welfare research funded by BBSRC.


Notes to editors

A call to the six UK veterinary schools, the University of Nottingham, which is bidding for a new veterinary school, and the relevant research group at the BBSRC-sponsored Silsoe Research Institute to bid for funds under the Animal Welfare Programme, was made in May 2004.

The total funding of the programme is £7.75M, including funding for 2 studentships for the Bristol, Oxford, RVC project and 1 studentship for the Scottish project.


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

External contact

Cherry Lewis, University of Bristol Press Office

tel: 0117 928 8086

Linda Menzies, University of Edinburgh Press Office

tel: 0131 650 6382

Mike Findlay, University of Glasgow Press Officer

tel: 0141 330 3535

Grace Haydon, University of Oxford Press Officer

tel: 01865 280531

Virginia Fisher, Royal Veterinary College Press Officer

tel: 01707 666314


Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299

Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

tel: 01793 414694
fax: 01793 413382