Abstracts: Assessing positive emotional states in dogs using heart rate and heart rate variability

Since most animal species have been recognised as sentient beings, emotional state may be a good indicator of welfare in animals. The goal of this study was to manipulate the environment of nine beagle research dogs to highlight physiological responses indicative of different emotional experiences. Stimuli were selected to be a more or a less positive food (meatball or food pellet) or social reward (familiar person or less familiar person). That all the stimuli were positive and of different reward value was confirmed in a runway motivation test. Dogs were tested individually while standing facing a display theatre where the different stimuli could be shown by lifting a shutter. The dogs approached and remained voluntarily in the test system. They were tested in four sessions (of 20 s each) for each of the four stimuli. A test session consisted of four presentation phases (1st exposure to stimulus, post exposure, 2nd exposure, and access to reward). Heart rate (HR) and heart rate variability (HRV) responses were recorded during testing in the experimental room and also when lying resting in a quiet familiar room. A new method of ‘stitching’ short periods of HRV data together was used in the analysis. When testing different stimuli, no significant differences were observed in HR and LF: HF ratio (relative power in low frequency (12) and the high -frequency (HF) range), implying that the sympathetic tone was activated similarly for all the stimuli and may suggest that dogs were in a state of positive arousal. A decrease of HF was associated with the meatball stimulus compared to the food pellet and the reward phase (interacting with the person or eating the food) was associated with a decrease in HF and RMSSD (root mean square of successive differences of inter-beat intervals) compared to the preceding phase (looking at the person or food). This suggests that para-sympathetic deactivation is associated with a more positive emotional state in the dog. A similar reduction in HF and RMSSD was found in the test situation compared to the resting situation. This is congruent with the expected autonomic effects related to postural shift i.e. sympathetic activation and parasympathetic withdrawal, during standing versus lying, but it cannot explain the parasympathetic deactivation in response to the more positive stimuli since the dogs were always standing in the test situation. We discuss the systematic pattern of responses, which support that increased HR and LF: HF ratio are associated with emotional arousal, but add the new proposal that a combined decrease in RMSSD and HF may reflect a more positively valenced emotional state even when an individual is already in a positive psychological state. The study is from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Animal Environment and Health, Uppsala, Sweden, and Linkoping University, Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biology, Linkoping, Sweden.

Zupan M, Buskas J, Altimiras J, et al. Physiology & Behavior 2016; 155: 102-111; doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2015.11.027