Lange, A., Waiblinger, S., Heinke, A. et al. 2020. Gentle interactions with restrained and free-moving cows: Effects on the improvement of the animal-human relationship. PLoS ONE 15(11), e0242873.
The animal-human relationship is essential for farm animal welfare and production. Generally, gentle tactile and vocal interactions improve the animal-human relationship in cattle. However, cows that are fearful of humans avoid their close presence and touch; thus, the animal-human relationship first has to be improved to a point where the animals accept stroking before their perception of the interactions and consequently the animal-human relationship can become positive. We tested whether the animal-human relationship of cows fearful of humans is improved more effectively by gentle interactions during restraint, allowing physical contact from the beginning, or if the gentle interactions are offered while the animals are free to move, giving them more control over the situation and thus probably a higher level of agency and a more positive perception of the interactions. Thirty-six dairy cows (median avoidance distance 1.6 m) were assigned to three treatments (each n = 12): gentle vocal and tactile interactions during restraint in the feeding rack (LOCK); gentle vocal and, if possible, tactile interactions while free in the barn (FREE); routine management without additional interactions (CON). Treatments were applied for 3 min per cow on 10 d per fortnight for 6 weeks (i.e., three periods). Avoidance and approach behaviour towards humans was tested before the start of the treatment period, and then at 2-week intervals. The recorded variables were reduced to one score by Principal Component Analysis. The resulting relationship score (higher values implying a better relationship with humans) increased in all groups; the increase was stronger in FREE than in CON, with the increase in LOCK being not significantly different from the other treatment groups. Thus, we recommend that gentle interactions with cows should take place while they are unrestrained, if possible.