CZAAWE Resource Article

Gentle vs. aversive handling of pregnant ewes: II. Physiology and behavior of the lambs
Publication Type 
Journal Article
Year of publication 
Physiology & Behavior
We compared the effects of aversive and gentle handling in late pregnant ewes on fearfulness, heart rate variability and spatial learning in lambs. Twenty-four Norwegian-Dala ewes were studied. Ewes were subjected to gentle (i.e. soft talking and calm behavior) or aversive handling (i.e. swift movements and shouting) for 10 min twice a day during the last five weeks of pregnancy. Lambs from aversively (AVS) or gently (GEN) treated ewes were tested at 4 weeks of age. Lamb behavior was recorded during a) a human approach test, composed of 4 min of isolation and 4 min of exposure to an unfamiliar human, b) an umbrella startle test followed by 5-min recording, and c) two repetitions of a maze test. In addition, heart rate variability was recorded telemetrically before and after the human and startle tests. The baseline heart rate variability measures suggested a lower influence of vagal stimulation in AVS lambs. In the human approach test, AVS lambs vocalized and explored the environment less, and were slower to approach the human. They also tended to have higher flight distances during the startle test than the GEN lambs. The prenatal treatment had no significant effect in the maze test. In conclusion, we showed that aversive handling of pregnant ewes increased fearfulness and reduced vagal tone in their progeny compared to GEN lambs. These effects can have consequences for how lambs cope with rearing conditions.