28 August 2013

Is Income (In)Equality Linked to Animal Welfare?

Are societies that are more equal for people also better for animal welfare?

Free range chickens foraging under the watchful eye of a ginger cat

Many of the organizations that look after homeless companion animals also advocate for other kinds of animals, including farm animals, wildlife, and animals used in experiments. Earlier research has suggested that, at an individual level, there could be a link between how people treat animals and how they treat people. A new paper by Michael Morris (University of Canterbury, New Zealand) investigates whether or not this is also the case at a societal level; in other words, if societies that are more equal for people are also better for animal welfare.

The idea came from something called the Environmental Kuznets Curve, “the hypothesis that as the per capita income for countries improves, their effect on the environment initially increases as polluting industries grow, but then it starts to decline again after a threshold of income is reached.” For example, technology may improve and consumer attitudes to environmental protection could change as a society gets richer.

Although the EKC is not proven, Morris wondered if the same thing would apply to societies: perhaps as societies get richer, changes in technology, attitudes and legislation might have an effect on animal welfare.

One of the interesting things that Morris does is to consider both total wealth and the distribution of wealth in society. He suggests several ways in which unequal income distribution might affect animal welfare: those who are struggling to get by might not have time to volunteer with animal charities or the funds to support animal welfare; societies that are seen as less caring for people may also care less for animals; control of resources may mean that some organizations have a greater influence on animal welfare than others.

The research looked at the most wealthy countries. Income equality was measured by something called a Gini coefficient, which is calculated by the United Nations Human Development Index.   A lower value means that income distribution is more equal.

How do you define animal welfare on a societal level? Morris looked at the kinds of regulations often recommended by humane societies and SPCAs, including bans on sow crates, farrowing crates, battery cages, colony cages for hens, veal crates and the consumption of foie gras. Of these, the only one that had a relationship to income inequality was that of battery cages: countries with a lower Gini coefficient were more likely to have a ban on battery cages.  

The study also looked at overall meat consumption within a society, and the percentage of calories obtained from meat. Although not significant, the results suggest that in more equal societies people eat less meat overall. Morris acknowledges there could be several reasons for this, including better awareness of the health benefits of less meat in the diet.

Finally, Morris also looked at animal experimentation, although this is difficult to measure for some countries because of differing legal requirements. Looking at European Union countries, where regulations require standardized reporting of animal testing, there was some support for a Kuznets-type curve. The use of cats and dogs in experiments increased with increasing income, but levelled off for the highest income countries. For New Zealand, the results showed a significant link between experiments on cats and dogs and changes in the Gini coefficient over time, with fewer experiments when society was more equal.

This is a thought-provoking paper because it considers how animal welfare might be affected by society as a whole. It’s also interesting to think that while we might consider whether, for example, meat consumption is or is not linked to an individual’s attitudes to animal welfare, we can also ask the same question at a national level. In fact Morris suggests that individual feelings of powerlessness and distrust within an unequal society may affect attitudes to animal welfare, and this is a topic for future research.

The availability of data is obviously a limiting factor. It would be interesting to include companion animal welfare, such as the numbers of homeless animals or the percentage that are euthanized each year. These are difficult to measure, but a recent paper estimated the number of homeless animals in the UK (Stavisky et al 2012) and changes in overall wealth due to recession are thought to have negatively impacted companion animal welfare (Morris and Steffler 2011; Weng and Hart 2012).

What kind of thing do you think is a measure of how well a society treats animals? And do you think it is more important to consider companion animals, farm animals, wildlife, or a combination?

Weng HY, & Hart LA (2012). Impact of the economic recession on companion animal relinquishment, adoption, and euthanasia: a Chicago animal shelter's experience. Journal of applied animal welfare science : JAAWS, 15 (1), 80-90 PMID: 22233217
Morris, G.D., & Steffler, J. (2011). Was pet relinquishment linked to foreclosure? A spatial research note from California during the height of foreclosure The Social Science Journal, 48, 739-745
Morris MC (2013). Improved nonhuman animal welfare is related more to income equality than it is to income. Journal of applied animal welfare science : JAAWS, 16 (3), 272-93 PMID: 23795689
Stavisky J, Brennan ML, Downes M, & Dean R (2012). Demographics and economic burden of un-owned cats and dogs in the UK: results of a 2010 census. BMC veterinary research, 8 PMID: 22974242

14 August 2013

Summer Vacation

A cat sunbathing by the sea on a sandy beach

Companion Animal Psychology Blog is on summer vacation.

If you want to catch up on some reading, our most popular posts so far this year include:
Are young children more interested in animals than toys?

The end for shock collars?

Will grey parrots share?

Do dogs try to hide theft of food?

How do hand-reared wolves and dogs interact with humans?

Why do people surrender dogs to animal shelters?

If you have any special requests for future posts, please leave a comment below. In the meantime, enjoy the rest of your summer! 

07 August 2013

Is Food or Affection Better as a Reward in Horse Training?

A brown Konik horse in a green pasture in rural Poland
Several recent studies have found that food is a better reward than petting or praise when training dogs. But what about horses? A new study led by Carol Sankey at the University of Rennes 1 in France investigates whether food is also the way to a horse’s heart.

Twenty horses took part in the study. They were Konik horses, a primitive breed in Poland (pictured). Twelve of the horses were raised in typical domestic conditions, while the remaining eight were raised in a forest reserve in semi-natural conditions. At the time of the study, all of the horses were between 1 and 2 years old, and live in stables. 

The horses were taught a ‘stay’ command starting at 5s and increasing gradually up to 60s if they progressed that far. Training took place for 5 minutes a day over a six-day period, and was conducted in the middle of the stables. Loudspeakers playing white noise were used to ensure that the other horses in the stables could not hear the training take place. After each training session, the horses were taken to a paddock and given time to run around.

Ten of the horses were in a ‘food reward’ group. They were given a piece of carrot each time they correctly responded to the trainer’s instruction. The other ten horses were in a ‘grooming reward’ group. If they responded correctly, the trainer scratched them three times on the withers.

The horses in the food reward group learned the stay command significantly faster than the horses in the grooming reward group. While 90% of the horses trained with food were able to stay for a minute at the end of training, only 40% of the horses trained with grooming could do this. In fact the mean duration of a stay for the grooming-reward horses was 32 seconds.

What happened is that while the grooming-reward horses made progress in the first two days, after this the rate of progress stalled. On the other hand, horses rewarded with food made the most progress in the first three days, but still continued to improve after that.

The scientists also conducted a test to see if the type of reward affected how much time a horse would spend in close proximity to the trainer. This is called a “motionless human test.” Before the training, there was no difference between the two groups of horses. After training, those in the food reward group approached the trainer more quickly, and spent more time near her, than those in the grooming group.

This study shows that for horses, just as with dogs, training is better facilitated by food; physical touch does not produce the same results.

The authors point out that food also plays an important role in human relationships, saying “Don’t we also say that little gifts keep friendship warm? Is there a better little gift than a box of sweets or chocolates to make a lover’s heart melt or fill a grandmother with joy?”

What kind of foodie gifts do you like to receive?

Sankey, C, Henry, S, Górecka-Bruzda, A, Richard-Yris, M-A, & Hausberger, M (2013). The way to a man's heart is through his stomach: What about horses? PLoS ONE, 5 (11) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0015446

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