Social licking in dairy cattle—Effects on heart rate in performers and receivers

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Simone Laister, Barbara Stockinger, Anna-Maria Regner, Karin Zenger, Ute Knierim, Christoph Winckler
Applied Animal Behaviour Science
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Using heart rate (HR) measurements we investigated whether potential calming effects of social licking were evident for both active (performers) and passive (receivers) licking partners. A HR decline was assumed to indicate relaxation and thus the experience of positive emotions. Effects of the licking category (spontaneous, solicited), the animals’ basic activity (standing, lying) and the licked body region (head, neck, rest) were also considered.

Two studies (A, B) were carried out in the same loose housed Austrian Simmental dairy herd. HR was recorded in up to 20 focal animals on 16 and 18 days, respectively. Using either direct observations (A) or video recordings (B), social licking interactions were continuously observed. The cow’s basic activity was recorded using scan sampling at 5min intervals. Linear mixed effects models were applied separately for Study A and B in order to compare the mean HR of the licking bouts with the mean of the respective 5min pre- and post-licking periods.

In receivers we found a significant calming effect in terms of a HR decline during allogrooming in both studies (A: −1.3beatsperminute, B: −1.1bpm). This effect was more pronounced when animals were standing (A/B: −2.4bpm/−3.8bpm). However, it was not affected by the licked body region.

In dairy cows performing social licking, we did not find an overall calming effect. On the contrary, in Study B, HR significantly increased during licking in lying performers (+2.5bpm). This reaction was even stronger, when licking was directed to the receivers’ head (+3.5bpm) or neck (+3.0bpm) as compared to the rest of the body (+1.4bpm). The licking category had no effect on HR changes during the licking events.

Our findings suggest that relaxation effects induced by social licking differ between performers and receivers and are affected by the cows’ basic activity. In receivers, there were clear indications of a calming effect implying the experience of positive affective states. In performers, such calming effects during social licking were not identified.


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