Hens with benefits: Can environmental enrichment make chickens more resilient to stress?

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Misha Ross, Quinn Rausch, Brittany Vandenberg, Georgia Mason
Physiology & Behavior
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Resilience, the degree to which individuals are physiologically and behaviourally impacted by stressors, can be enhanced by positive experiences (e.g. positive moods in human, environmental enrichment in rodents). Such effects are important for human health, but could also have important animal welfare implications in terms of farm, laboratory and zoo animals’ abilities to cope with stressors. Here we investigated whether enrichments can increase resilience in chickens, the world’s most abundant agricultural animal. The stress reactivity of laying hens housed for 5–6 weeks in enriched environments was compared to that of controls housed in smaller, emptier, less preferred pens, via: 1) startle reflex amplitudes to an abrupt, intense sensory stimulus (a light flash); and 2) autonomic responses to restraint and the sudden appearance of a novel object, assessed from decreases in comb temperature. Startle amplitudes were consistently reduced in the enriched hens, exerted with around one sixth the force seen in control hens. Maximum comb temperature decreases, and latencies for comb temperatures to return to prestress levels, also both fell by around a third. Enrichment thus reduced hens’ intrinsic behavioural and physiological responses to standardized stressors (doing so even outside the home pen), just as occurs in laboratory rodents. Enrichment also reduced baseline comb temperature, suggesting that this could be a non-invasive indicator of welfare. Altered judgment biases did not seem to be the mechanism. Further work should now investigate the processes underlying the apparently enhanced stress resilience of animals housed in preferred conditions, and also investigate baseline comb temperature as a chronic stress indicator in poultry.


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