The science behind animal handling

Understanding the science behind animal behavior can guide our approach to animal handling and help to create a positive experience for animals and humans alike.

A girl sitting with a black and white pig.

This content was adapted from a presentation by Melissa Elischer, teaching specialist in the Michigan State University Department of Animal Science.

One of the many aspects of animal husbandry that youth learn about through their 4-H projects is proper animal handling. When considering best practices for animal handling, it is important to first know the basics of animal behavior. Understanding animal behavior and how animals perceive the world around them can guide our decision-making when it comes to handling them.

What do we know?

  • We know our handling approach differs between species.
    • For example, we handle swine differently than we handle sheep.
    • Some individual animals can be easier to work with than others.
  • We know that our first few interactions with an animal can differ from interactions later on as we build relationships with them.
  • We know that working with animals can be stressful for them and for us.

Stress, by definition, is a biological response to defend the animal from internal and external challenges. Stress reduces an animal’s production efficiency and lowers their outputs such as meat, milk and eggs. Also, when animals become stressed, they can become fearful and fearful animals can be dangerous. For this reason, it is critical to practice low stress handling – a form of handling, moving and working with livestock in a way that minimizes external stressors.

Livestock perceive the world differently than humans. Their sight and depth perception are poorer than that of humans, and they are more sensitive to smell and sound. Additionally, livestock are prey species, leading them to naturally move away from humans and to prefer to move in groups. We can use this knowledge to our advantage to create neutral or positive interactions through low-stress handling. Because we know how animals experience the world around them, we know we should move slowly, keep the environment as quiet as we can, move animals in groups when possible and minimize distractions. Being mindful of these factors can make for a low-stress handling experience for our animals.

Lastly, it is of the utmost importance to treat your animals with respect. Avoiding the use of excessive force such as hitting, beating, dragging or yelling at your animal is crucial. As stewards of these animals, it is our responsibility to give them a good life. Also, be mindful of public perception when at fairs and exhibitions; people will develop opinions based on what they see at these events, so show visitors that livestock are well-cared for every day!

Interested in 4-H animal science projects? Contact your local Michigan State University Extension office to find a 4-H club near you.

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