Happy as a pig in

According to the old wisdom, pigs feel a sense of sublime peacefulness and personal fulfilment that amounts to happiness when they are in mud. At least that’s how we humans interpret a pig’s requirements for serene satisfaction. Two burning questions remain however, are pigs really capable of emotion and are they able to look forward to things, that is, are they capable of optimism?

Researchers from Newcastle University in the UK have designed an experiment that would have made Ivan Pavlov proud. The researchers taught pigs to associate a musical note played on a glockenspiel with receiving a treat (an apple). They also taught the pigs to associate a dog training “clicker” with something unpleasant (a rustling plastic bag).

The next step was to put half of the pigs in what they termed an “enriched environment” which involved more space and freedom to roam and play in straw with pig toys. The other half of the pigs were placed in a smaller, more boring environment with only one pig toy. This was only a temporary arrangement which means that the second group of pigs were only exposed to grimness, not pain for a short time.

After a short time in these conditions the researchers then played an ambiguous noise to see how the pigs responded. Although the noise was not like the musical note the pigs in the enriched environment were optimistic about what this noise might mean and responded expecting to get an apple. The pigs in the more boring environment however tended to be more pessimistic and presumably fearing that an unpleasant plastic bag sound might be experienced, they did not bother to approach.

The researchers point out that this type of response is seen in humans all the time. People who are having a bad day will interpret an innocuous cue as being negative. They give the example, that when having a bad day and the boss calls you into her/his office the first to go through your mind will be, “What have I done wrong?” This is called negative cognitive bias. On a better day you will interpret the boss’ summons completely differently.

This research tells us a few things. Firstly, like humans, the mood of pigs is impacted by their surroundings. Secondly they are capable of complex emotional expectation states such as optimism and pessimism. What this then ties into is that we must be mindful of how we house our pigs and potentially other farm animals.

We need to look far beyond alleviating suffering for pigs and other animals and look at what is important to those animals for their wellbeing physically and mentally. This research has provided a window into a pig’s emotional state far more clearly than has previously existed. The enriched environment used in this study is already used in farms across the UK and can be sustainably introduced to commercial systems.

In a global market cheap imports put immense pressure on farmers who try to do the best thing by their livestock. In the face of this pressure though, as we navigate into a sustainable future the emphasis must not only be on keeping animals alive but also giving them quality of life.

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The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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