Animal welfare for youth: Part 5 – Natural Living

This series will explore basic concepts of animal welfare and why 4-H youth involved in animal projects should understand this subject.

Three Circles Model of Animal Welfare, adapted from Appleby, Lund, and Fraser and colleagues.
Three Circles Model of Animal Welfare, adapted from Appleby, Lund, and Fraser and colleagues.

This is the fifth in a series of articles from Michigan State University Extension aimed to help 4-H club leaders discuss animal welfare concepts with youth. In Part 1, animal welfare was defined, Part 2 provided an outline of the Five Freedoms, Part 3 introduced the Three Circles Model, and Part 4 detailed Basic Health and Functioning in model. Part 5 will break down the second circle of the model, Natural Living. The ideas presented here can be used with any 4-H animal science project because the questions and concepts apply to all species, including beef, sheep, swine, dairy, poultry, rabbits and cavies, companion animals, goats, and horses and ponies.

Defining Natural Living

To review the definition from Part 3, Natural Living emphasizes that animals should be able to lead reasonably natural lives. This includes being able to perform important, normal behaviors (e.g., dust bathing for chickens or rooting for swine) and to have some natural elements in their environment (e.g., sunlight, fresh air or social contact for herd species). This concept most closely relates back to the freedom to express normal behavior.

Satisfying this need for animals may not be as easy as Basic Health and Functioning. Allowing animals the space and appropriate environment to perform natural behaviors is not always how production facilities are designed. For example, cattle are grazing animals, but very few dairies have the space, fencing or means to allow a herd to graze. Even if a dairy does have space, the grazing season is limited by geography and weather, so it may not be a viable option year round. Another example would be roosting or perching for poultry. Perching is an important, natural behavior for poultry because it elevates them off the ground. This makes it easier to look out for ground predators, like foxes or raccoons, and gives them a safer space to rest. Because this is such an important behavior, poultry will perch or roost wherever they can, like on a water or food line, if other appropriate places are not supplied. These lines are not designed to hold the weight of birds displaying this normal behavior and may break, causing damage to the housing unit and possibly the birds.

Back to the Five Freedoms

In returning to the Five Freedoms, this circle relates back most closely to the freedom to express natural behaviors (Freedom 4). Allowing natural behaviors to be expressed is important to provide good welfare, but not all natural behaviors are desirable and may be problematic for an individual or group of animals, according to Fraser, 2008.

Natural behaviors improving welfare

Dairy calves naturally want to feed multiple times per day in small meals where they are allowed to suckle. Using an artificial teat, allowing the calves to suckle and having more frequent feeding is very beneficial and meets the natural needs of the calf. Suckling leads to a greater release of digestive hormones, smaller, more frequent meals will lead to the calf drinking more overall, and the combination of these benefits helps the calf gain weight and grow more quickly.

Calves can learn to drink out of buckets, but it may take more time because their natural reflex is to suckle from a teat. Less frequent feedings will still provide the calf with the amount of food and nutrients needed to grow, but it may not be as efficient.

Natural behaviors hindering welfare

Because calves have such a strong desire to suckle, this behavior may be redirected inappropriately if not met through feeding methods. Calves may begin to suckle on themselves or other calves (if they are in proximity), leading to the possibility of injuries from having patches of skin and hair repeatedly pulled at and damp. Calves may also develop abnormal oral behaviors, such as tongue rolling, which could impair rumen health and overall health and production.

Talking with youth about natural behaviors

  • Remind youth of previous conversations about the Five Freedoms and first circle, Basic Health and Functions. Talk about how these ways of approaching animal welfare are related and that there has been a lot of discussion about meeting the physical needs of animals.
  • Ask the youth what other parts of the Five Freedoms have yet to be discussed. What needs do animals have beyond physical ones? This might be more difficult for youth to find the right words to describe, so referring the Five Freedoms will help them have the language to talk about non-physical needs.
  • Once the youth mention Freedom 4, the freedom to express normal behaviors, make the connection (if they haven’t already) to the second circle, Natural Behaviors. Use whatever species of animal youth are most interested in – cattle, swine, dogs, etc. – to discuss natural behaviors.
  • Make a list and of behaviors they see their project animals performing and then ask them to think about wild counter parts (e.g. deer or other hoof stock youth have seen in zoos could be used with cattle; warthogs or wild boars with pigs; wolves or coyotes with dogs etc.). Some of these counterparts might be unfamiliar for youth, so it provides a great opportunity for them to do a little research! It could be turned into a club presentation where members teach each other (and leaders) new facts about animals they might not think a lot about. It will be a chance to help youth learn where to find good sources of information online, at school and at libraries.
  • From this list, talk about what behaviors are the same with wild and domestic animals. Also talk about what natural behaviors help project animals and promote good welfare and which behaviors, if they cannot be expressed, might hinder welfare (like the calf example above). Talk about different housing, feeding or other activities youth could provide their project animals, allowing the animals the chance to express important behaviors. Brainstorm ways to make these ideas a reality. Sometimes the smallest changes can have the biggest impact for animals!

Talking about Natural Behaviors with youth may be more difficult than Basic Health and Functioning, but it is an important topic to cover. When the youth have a better understanding of what is natural for their animals to do and why, it will help them find ways to meet important behavioral needs so welfare is improved.

Part 6 in this series will explore Affective States in more depth. Part 7 will conclude the series and include real-world examples to use as conversation starters to help youth practice critical thinking and communication skills.

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