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Human contact reduces stress in dairy calves

When people pet or scratch their pets, it is usually clear that their furry friends enjoy the experience due to their positive reactions. This is not only the case for popular pets such as dogs and cats, but for all kinds of animals, including calves. 

In fact, not only do calves exhibit positive reactions to physical contact from humans, but a new study has concluded that as little as five minutes of socialization can make them happier and healthier. 

The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Florida Department of Animal Sciences, specifically studying the behaviors exhibited by calves after being fed. According to lead investigator Dr. Emily K. Miller-Cushon, calves often show distressed behavior after being fed, such as sucking or chewing on their housing pens or bedding, on their pen-mates or human handlers.

The researchers randomly assigned 28 Holstein heifer calves to individual or paired housing from birth, standardizing human contact with them for seven weeks through health exams and feeding. 

During the weaning period at around six weeks into the study, additional human contact was introduced throughout a four-day study period. Each calf received extra human contact on two of these days, and an extra five minutes of neck scratches on the other two days. 

The enjoyment that calves get from neck scratches is curious, but there is an explanation. “We know from previous research that calves seem to enjoy tactile contact including brushing from humans,” explained Dr. Miller-Cushon. 

“This kind of contact can reduce their heart rates, and calves lean into the scratches and stretch out their necks for more. Calves are active and seek stimulation following milk-feeding, so providing more things to do, like brushing, may calm calves, reducing sucking behaviors after feeding and increasing rest.”

After the study period, the researchers analyzed video recordings of the calves and their behaviors, concluding that both human contact and socialization with other calves positively impacted the well-being of each animal. Sucking behaviors were reduced and this resulted in them resting more, ultimately helping to promote calmness and overall health. 

While the study’s results were clearly positive, the experts noted that there was no evidence to show that human contact could completely eradicate sucking behaviors in calves. 

“Our findings showed benefits of human contact, but the results also suggest that our work is not done in finding the most beneficial and natural methods of feeding and housing our dairy calves,” said Dr. Miller-Cushon.

The research is published in the journal JDS Communications.


By Calum Vaughan, Staff Writer

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