Understanding animals’ emotions

Scotland’s Rural College has teamed up with a leading UK supermarket in a pioneering project to assess the emotional expressivity of animals in the supply chain.

The project will have a particular focus on recognising and promoting positive expressions of animals’ welfare and quality of life.

Professor Françoise Wemelsfelder, an animal behaviour and welfare specialist at SRUC, has begun working with the Waitrose & Partners Animal Welfare Development Group – an expert panel of scientists, vets and farmers aiming to achieve the best quality of life they can for farm animals supplying Waitrose produce.

A key part of the project is the Qualitative Behavioural Assessment (QBA), a system developed by Prof Wemelsfelder that focuses on the expressive ‘body language’ (for example: curious or scared) that animals show when they interact with each other and their environment. The system integrates such observations into a framework that can offer real insight into an animal’s emotional state.

She said: “For any given species, you need a list of about 20 terms to describe both the positive and negative aspects of the animals’ emotional range. Is the animal relaxed, playful, confident or curious? Is it tense, frustrated, agitated or bored? Then you scale the intensity of this expressivity. It’s bored? Well, how bored? It’s content? How content? The scale starts at zero for ‘not at all content’ and goes up to ten for ‘couldn’t be more content’.”

Scoring a significant number of terms in this way allows patterns to emerge that give an indication of the animal’s general mood.

“It’s the integration of individual assessments into the framework that makes the science robust,” said Dr Wemelsfelder. “It can become a sharp tool for measuring something quite subtle. But as with any method, you need to provide sufficient support and training to make sure the system functions well.”

Prof Wemelsfelder and the Animal Welfare Development Group will be working with supply chain team leaders and farmers to devise lists of descriptors for dairy cows, pigs, laying hens, chickens, veal calves and ducks, that will convert into a toolkit app.

The Waitrose & Partners field team, who visit farms regularly to ensure welfare standards remain high, will then have an on-the-go way of monitoring the animals’ emotional state.

Prof Wemelsfelder said: “There is so much knowledge among the farmers already about the way animals express themselves, but a lot of it is implicit and goes unspoken. The toolkit will formalise this and give people confidence to say, ‘Let’s do something with the knowledge that we have.’”

Andrew Booth, who chairs the development group, said: “We know that Waitrose & Partners has always led the way when it comes to animal welfare, but what we wanted was to create a framework to assess this welfare, to show what we’re doing well and to identify areas for improvement.”

John Gregson, a member of Waitrose & Partners’ CSR and Agriculture team, added: “If people in our society are going to continue eating meat, then we’re probably going to eat a bit less of it, but I think we can aspire to eat better meat – and that’s meat from an animal that has been raised well, with its wellbeing  in mind. Who wouldn’t want that?”

“Having access to a superb supply chain with quality suppliers gives our researchers an excellent opportunity to grow our relationship and continue to build a lasting partnership that will allow both Waitrose and SRUC to explore further innovative industry-led research.”

Colin MacEwan, Commercial Director, SRUC