Lindner, E. E., Gingerich, K. N., Burke, K. C. et al. 2022. Effects of social housing on dairy calf social bonding. Animals 12(7), 821.
Social housing for dairy calves has a range of benefits for social development, yet there is limited understanding of how social bonds form early in life. We characterized effects of early life social contact on the development of social preference for calves varying in familiarity. A total of 40 calves were tested in a social preference test at 4 weeks of age to assess the formation of social bonds and preference for their peers. Within an open-field social preference test, focal calves were presented with two stimulus calves, one ‘more familiar’ and one ‘less familiar’. We found that pair-housed calves spent more time in close proximity with either stimulus calf and had a greater preference for their pen-mate, compared to another calf reared within visual contact. Individually housed calves exhibited no preference for calves reared within visual but not physical contact compared to calves that were completely unfamiliar. Of the calves that approached both stimulus calves, individually housed calves that approached the ‘less familiar’ calf first spent less time near the ‘more familiar’ calf, whereas behavior of pair-housed calves was not affected by the first calf approached. These results suggest that physical contact is necessary for the development of social bonds in young dairy calves, and early life social housing may support the development of normal social behavior in dairy cattle.