Reduced cortisol and metabolic responses of thin ewes to an acute cold challenge in mid-pregnancy: implications for animal physiology and welfare

Low food availability leading to reductions in Body Condition Score (BCS; 0 indicates emaciation and 5 obesity) in sheep often coincides with low temperatures associated with the onset of winter in New Zealand. The ability to adapt to reductions in environmental temperature may be impaired in animals with low BCS, in particular during pregnancy when metabolic demand is higher. Here we assess whether BCS affects a pregnant animal’s ability to cope with cold challenges.

Eighteen pregnant ewes with a BCS of 2.7±0.1 were fed to attain low (LBC: BCS2.3±0.1), medium (MBC: BCS3.2±0.2) or high BCS (HBC: BCS3.6±0.2). Shorn ewes were exposed to a 6-h acute cold challenge in a climate-controlled room (wet and windy conditions, 4.4±0.1°C) in mid-pregnancy. Blood samples were collected during the BCS change phase, acute cold challenge and recovery phase.

During the BCS change phase, plasma glucose and leptin concentrations declined while free fatty acids (FFA) increased in LBC compared to MBC (P<0.01, P<0.01 and P<0.05, respectively) and HBC ewes (P<0.05, P<0.01 and P<0.01, respectively). During the cold challenge, plasma cortisol concentrations were lower in LBC than MBC (P<0.05) and HBC ewes (P<0.05), and FFA and insulin concentrations were lower in LBC than HBC ewes (P<0.05 and P<0.001, respectively). Leptin concentrations declined in MBC and HBC ewes while remaining unchanged in LBC ewes (P<0.01). Glucose concentrations and internal body temperature (T(core)) increased in all treatments, although peak T(core) tended to be higher in HBC ewes (P<0.1). During the recovery phase, T4 concentrations were lower in LBC ewes (P<0.05).
Even though all ewes were able to increase T (core) and mobilize glucose, low BCS animals had considerably reduced cortisol and metabolic responses to a cold challenge in mid-pregnancy, suggesting that their ability to adapt to cold challenges through some of the expected pathways was reduced. The study is from the Department of Biological Sciences, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand.

Verbeek E, Oliver MH, Waas JR, et al. PLoS One 2012; 7(5): e37315 [Epub 2012 May 25].

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