Can social competence be improved by pig management, breeding?

For the first time, a study will use the idea of ​​social competence to try to improve animal welfare

April 11, 2022

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3 minute read

An innovative project will examine whether the social competence of pigs – and therefore their welfare – can be improved through management and husbandry.

Social competence covers the range of decisions an animal makes in different social situations – such as fight or flight or play or not. Traditionally, the effects of these social decisions have been studied in isolation, but in the real world they are likely to combine to influence animal welfare.

For the first time, a study led by the SRUC, will use the idea of ​​social competence, and whether it can be transmitted from one generation to the next, to try to improve animal welfare.

The research, which will be carried out in collaboration with the School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast and the Pig Improvement Company, will focus on pigs, which have complex social lives involving a range of positive and negative forms of interaction social. Negative forms of interaction reduce their welfare and economic productivity, while increasing their environmental footprint, as animals use energy from food to fuel undesirable behaviors. However, little is known about how positive forms of interaction – such as social play and grooming – benefit their well-being.

This project will be a major step towards understanding these benefits by exploring how decisions made in a wide range of social situations relevant to modern agricultural environments combine to influence overall well-being. It will test how social competence is influenced by the social environment that animals experience early in life and by the complexity of the physical environment. Researchers will also examine whether choosing socially competent animals to be the parents of the next generation will simultaneously benefit their productivity as well as their welfare.

“As positive social behaviors are likely to be crucial for social competence, this will allow us to better understand how positive forms of social interaction benefit well-being,” said principal researcher Simon Turner. “We will also investigate for the first time whether it is possible to increase the expression of these positive behaviors through careful choice of animals to breed. Our goal is to promote animal welfare while simultaneously helping farmers to produce animals that are profitable for their business and need less food to grow well, thereby improving the environmental footprint of agriculture Pigs, and other species, exhibit social behaviors that are difficult to improve when we view these behaviors as isolated phenomena.We expect that by taking a higher-level approach, we can foster animals that have the social skills necessary to navigate a wide range of social situations.

Although the project focuses on pigs, the results of the research, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Pig Improvement Company, are expected to be relevant to a wide range of species. .