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Do Skin Lesions Indicate Sub-Standard Welfare?

26 October 2010

NORWAY - Camilla Kielland's PhD research has identified the prevalence and risk factors for skin lesions on Norwegian dairy cows.

Skin lesions can be a dependable indicator of sub-standard animal welfare. Risk factors were shown to be associated not only with housing design for dairy cattle, but also with the individual animal's characteristics and with the farmer’s attitudes towards animals in pain. The results of Kielland's research can provide practical information on where and how to improve animal welfare in existing and new cubicle housing systems.

From 1st January 2024, loose housing systems will be required by Norwegian legislation and milk producers in Norway are currently spending significant sums building cubicle-housing systems for dairy cattle. In spite of these efforts, inadequately designed and sub-optimally managed cubicle housing facilities can still lead to poor welfare and financial losses. Therefore, in both new and existing cubicle housing systems, it is important to optimise construction, design and management in order to avoid features that may lead to sub-standard animal welfare.

Kielland's thesis assesses two aspects affecting the welfare of dairy cows: the first involved indirect measurements of the care provided by the farmer. Care is dependent upon farmers’ attitudes towards animals, their knowledge and their personalities. Previous research has also indicated a direct relationship between the farmer’s attitudes and his behaviour towards animals. This part of the thesis used an online questionnaire which monitored both farmers’ attitudes towards pain in animals and farmers’ empathy towards pain in cattle. The questionnaire was piloted on 300 Norwegian veterinary students.

Secondly, the thesis investigates the prevalence and risk factors for skin lesions. Risk factors were explored in relation to detailed housing design, cow characteristics and farmers’ care. Skin lesions were chosen as a dependable welfare indicator for dairy cattle kept in loose housing systems. Lesions are readily observed and develop over time. They can be painful and can provide indications of inadequately designed indoor housing systems, and they can also be an indicator of sub-optimal care. The material for this part of the thesis was collected by means of a cross-sectional study conducted on 2,335 animals in 232 Norwegian farms using a loose housing system. When visiting the farms, Kielland monitored the design of the housing and registered the occurrence of skin changes on the neck and legs of the animals.

In addition to being the first study to establish the prevalence of skin lesions on the legs and neck of Norwegian dairy cattle, the results from this thesis provide insight into the different risk factors associated with skin lesions on animals in cubicle housing. Risk factors were found to be related to farm management, including farmers' attitudes to animals, feeding frequency and the use of sawdust in the cubicle. They were also related to the housing design (type of bedding in cubicle, stall length etc.), and to the individual animal's characteristics (shoulder height, body condition score, lameness etc.).

Skin lesions can be used to assess the level of animal welfare, but also to provide practical information on where and how to improve animal welfare in existing and new cubicle housing systems to be built up until the year 2024 and beyond.

Camilla Kielland, DVM, presented her doctoral thesis on 15th October 2010 at The Norwegian School of Veterinary Science (NVH). The thesis is entitled: "Risk factors associated with dairy cattle welfare in cubicle housing”.

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