Cognitive enrichment, a special form of environmental enrichment, addresses the cognitive abilities of animals in captivity.
Through cognitive interaction with the environment, the animals regain a certain control over their environment, and essential resources, such as food or water, act as a reward for successful coping. It is assumed that this process has important implications for animal welfare, especially in the intensive housing systems of farm animals.
This study investigates the effects of cognitive enrichment on welfare-relevant behaviour (agonistic interactions and behavioural reactivity in a repeated open-field test) and autonomic control (heart rate variability during feeding, resting and in a repeated open-field test) in domestic pigs.
A total of 48 pigs, Sus scrofa, were housed in groups of 4. In 6 replicates, an experimental group was compared with a conventionally fed control group. The pigs in the experimental group were confronted with a cognitive challenge that was integrated into their familiar housing environment. Pigs were rewarded with food after they successfully mastered the discrimination of an individual acoustical signal followed by an operant task. The pigs in both groups reacted with sympathetic arousal to feeding announcement (increased heart rate (HR)).
During feeding, the experimental pigs’ HR decreased, and heart rate variability (HRV) increased, while the control pigs’ HR stayed highly elevated and HRV decreased. These results are supported by a considerably larger number of agonistic interactions during feeding in the control group. During resting, the basal HRV of the experimental pigs increased (during operant conditioning) compared to the control. In the repeated open-field test, the experimental pigs displayed less locomotion and elimination as well as more contact with the wall and an unknown object compared to the control group.
We conclude that cognitive enrichment leads to relaxed feeding and evokes longer lasting positive emotions. Moreover, the pigs displayed more explorative and less fearful behaviour in stressful situations. These findings support the use of cognitive enrichment to improve animal welfare. The study is from the Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology, Dummerstorf, Germany.
Zebunke M, Puppe B, Langbein J. Physiol Behav 2013 May 13 [Epub ahead of print].