Lange, A., Bauer, L., Futschik, A. et al. 2020. Talking to cows: Reactions to different auditory stimuli during gentle human-animal interactions. Frontiers in Psychology 11, 2690.
The quality of the animal-human relationship and, consequently, the welfare of animals can be improved by gentle interactions such as stroking and talking. The perception of different stimuli during these interactions likely plays a key role in their emotional experience, but studies are scarce. During experiments, the standardization of verbal stimuli could be increased by using a recording. However, the use of a playback might influence the perception differently than “live” talking, which is closer to on-farm practice. Thus, we compared heifers' (n = 28) reactions to stroking while an experimenter was talking soothingly (“live”) or while a recording of the experimenter talking soothingly was played (“playback”). Each animal was tested three times per condition and each trial comprised three phases: pre-stimulus, stimulus (stroking and talking) and post-stimulus. In both conditions, similar phrases with positive content were spoken calmly, using long low-pitched vowels. All tests were video recorded and analyzed for behaviors associated with different affective states. Effects on the heifers' cardiac parameters were assessed using analysis of heart rate variability. Independently of the auditory stimuli, longer durations of neck stretching occurred during stroking, supporting our hypothesis of a positive perception of stroking. Observation of ear positions revealed longer durations of the “back up” position and less ear flicking and changes of ear positions during stroking. The predicted decrease in HR during stroking was not confirmed; instead we found a slightly increased mean HR during stroking with a subsequent decrease in HR, which was stronger after stroking with live talking. In combination with differences in HRV parameters, our findings suggest that live talking might have been more pleasurable to the animals and had a stronger relaxing effect than “playback.” The results regarding the effects of the degree of standardization of the stimulus on the variability of the data were inconclusive. We thus conclude that the use of recorded auditory stimuli to promote positive affective states during human-animal interactions in experimental settings is possible, but not necessarily preferable.