Preliminary findings on a novel behavioural approach for the assessment of pain and analgesia in lambs subject to routine husbandry procedures

The identification and assessment of pain in sheep under field conditions are important, but, due to their stoic nature, are fraught with many challenges. In Australia, various husbandry procedures that are documented to cause pain are routinely performed at lamb marking, including ear tagging, castration, mulesing, and tail docking.

This study evaluated the validity of a novel methodology to assess pain in lambs: qualitative behavioural assessment (QBA) was used to compare the behavioural expression of control lambs (CONTROL) with that of lambs subject to these procedures that received either a saline placebo 15 min before procedures (PLACEBO), or were administered meloxicam 15 min before procedures in addition to the standard analgesic Tri-Solfen at the time of procedures, as per the manufacturer’s recommendations (ANALGESIC TREATMENT; AT).

In terms of behavioural expression, it was expected that: CONTROL ≠ PLACEBO, AT = CONTROL, and PLACEBO ≠ AT. Video footage of the 6−8-week-old lambs (n = 10 for each treatment) was captured approximately 1.5 h postprocedure and was presented, in a random order, to 19 observers for assessment using the Free-Choice Profiling (FCP) approach to QBA.

There was significant consensus (p < 0.001) among the observers in their assessment of the lambs, with two main dimensions of behavioural expression explaining 69.2 per cent of the variation. As expected, observers perceived differences in the demeanour of lambs in the first dimension, scoring all lambs subject to the routine husbandry procedures as significantly more ‘dull’ and ‘uneasy’ compared to the control lambs (p < 0.05). Contrary to expectations, the results also suggested that analgesic treatment did not provide relief at the time of observation. Further investigations to validate the relationship between behavioural expression scores and pain are necessary, but these results suggest that painful husbandry procedures alter the behavioural expression of lambs and these differences can be captured using QBA methodology. The study is from Agricultural Sciences, College of Science, Health, Engineering & Education, Murdoch University, Murdoch, WA, Australia, and the Cooperative Research Centre for Sheep Industry Innovation (Sheep CRC), Armidale, NSW, Australia. Grant EP, Wickham SL, Anderson F, et al. Animals (Basel) 2020; 10(7):1148. doi 10.3390/ani10071148.

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