Rault, J.-L. 2012. Friends with benefits: Social support and its relevance for farm animal welfare. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 136(1), 1-14.
Despite growing interest in promoting positive welfare, rather than just alleviating poor welfare, potential measures of good welfare, and means to provide it, have remained elusive. In humans social support improves stress-coping abilities, health, and promotes positive psychological welfare. Therefore, social support may be a key approach to promote positive physical and psychological welfare in farm animals. However, the roles of positive social behaviors and social support have been overlooked in comparison to negative social behaviors such as agonistic interactions. The benefits of social partners on an animal's stress coping abilities and welfare are yet poorly understood. The purpose of this paper is to review the protective or buffering effects of social support against stressful challenges and its potential implications for farm animal welfare. The biology of social support is first presented with its behavior, endocrine, autonomic and immune components. The major factors modulating the social support process are then synthesized. Research and implications for animal welfare in different farm species are discussed. Lastly, this review identifies research areas that especially deserve further attention in our effort to understand and implement social support in farm animal welfare. Social support could constitute one of the foundations for welfare researchers to leap from the absence of negative welfare to the provision of positive welfare and emotional experiences.