Rault, J.-L., Truong, S., Hemsworth, L. et al. 2019. Gentle abdominal stroking (‘belly rubbing’) of pigs by a human reduces EEG total power and increases EEG frequencies. Behavioural Brain Research 374, 111892.

The neurobiological response to gentle touch remains poorly understood, especially in the context of human-animal interaction. A novel approach allowed recording the pig electroencephalogram (EEG) cranially epidurally and wirelessly during positive interactions with a human. Stroking of the pig’s abdomen (‘belly rubbing’), applied opportunistically, elicited a distinct behavioral response characterized by lateral recumbency, limb stretching, frequent short-lasting grunts and eye closure. Pigs varied in their responsiveness to belly rubbing but all pigs showed it. Their EEG was compared to EEG during human presence and other positive interactions except belly rubbing; isolation; and in the home pen as a baseline. Total EEG power (‘Ptot’) was lower during belly rubbing, whereas the median frequency (‘F50’, 5.3 ± 0.9 Hz vs. 3.8 ± 0.9 Hz for other contexts) and the 95% spectral edge frequency (‘F95’, 45.2 ± 3.2 Hz vs. 40.0 ± 3.2 Hz for other contexts) were higher during belly rubbing compared to other contexts. Lower EEG total power combined with a shift in spectral power distribution toward higher frequencies were linked to behavioral changes indicative of a positive welfare state during belly rubbing. The effects of belly rubbing on animal psychobiology and well-being warrant further research as a model of positive welfare state induced by touch.

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