Hayes, M. E., Hemsworth, L. M., Morrison, R. S. et al. 2021. Positive human contact and housing systems impact the responses of piglets to various stressors. Animals 11(6), 1619.

This experiment studied the effects of lactation housing systems and human interaction on piglets’ responses to routine stressors. Forty litters of piglets were reared in either a standard farrowing crate (FC) or a loose farrowing and lactation pen (LP; PigSAFE pen) and received either routine contact with humans (C) or regular opportunities for positive human contact (+HC; 3 min of patting, stroking and scratching 5 times/week). Behavioural and physiological responses to routine husbandry procedures, weaning, novelty and humans were studied in addition to effects on piglet growth, injuries and survival. Compared to C piglets, +HC piglets vocalised for shorter durations (p = 0.018) during husbandry procedures and showed a lower intensity of escape behaviour during iron injection (p = 0.042) and oral vaccination (p = 0.026) at 3 d of age, capture at 2 wk of age (p < 0.001), and intramuscular vaccination (p = 0.005) at 3 wk of age. +HC piglets at 2 wk of age were faster than C piglets to approach (p = 0.048) and interact (p = 0.042) with a stationary unfamiliar human. Compared to LP piglets, FC piglets showed a lower intensity of escape behaviour during capture and iron administration by a stockperson at 3 d of age (p = 0.043). FC piglets at 2 wk of age were faster than LP piglets to approach (p = 0.005) and interact (p = 0.027) with a novel object and approach (p = 0.009) and interact (p = 0.008) with an unfamiliar human. FC piglets had fewer injuries than LP piglets at 2 wk of age (p = 0.004). +HC pigs had fewer injuries than C pigs after weaning (p = 0.003). After weaning there were more pigs from LP than FC observed to be upright (both stationary, p = 0.002 and walking, p = 0.024), vocalizing (p = 0.004), nosing another pig (p = 0.035) and nosing the pen floor (p = 0.038). There were no significant effects on neutrophil:lymphocyte ratios or plasma cortisol concentrations 1.5 h after weaning. However, 25 h after weaning +HC pigs had higher haptoglobin concentrations than C pigs (p = 0.002), and C/LP pigs had higher cortisol concentrations than +HC/LP and C/FC pigs (p = 0.012). There were no significant effects on piglet growth, the number of piglets born alive or the number stillborn, however there were more piglets weaned from FC than LP (p = 0.035). The results from this experiment raise questions that require further research on the ability of pigs reared in loose pens to cope with stressors such as exposure to humans, novelty, husbandry procedures and weaning. This experiment also provides evidence that regular positive human interaction reduces pigs’ fear of humans and husbandry procedures imposed by stockpeople. More research is required to determine if any of these effects are sustained long-term.

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