There’s increased awareness of the importance of the human-animal interaction (HAI) and its role in animal health and well-being. Positive interactions result in less stress, higher production and overall improved animal welfare.

In a presentation sponsored by the Dairy Cattle Welfare Council, Dr. Lily Edwards-Callaway, Colorado State University, discussed the importance of the human-animal relationship, and reviewed the results of several studies designed to measure the welfare impacts of positive animal handling.

Dairy farmers will likely agree their animals can recognize different people. Edwards-Callaway described an experiment designed to prove that cows recognize and distinguish different people, places and handling.

“They exposed cows to two different handlers the cows had no previous experience with,” she said. “The handlers were both women, of similar height, and they wore similar clothing. Animals were trained to respond by bumping the handler’s fist with their nose.” There was a difference in responses between the handler the cows were trained to respond to versus reactions to the other handler, so it was clear that animals were responding to a certain individual.

The goal of another study was to determine whether cows could recognize individual handlers based on previous handling. “A handler was gently treating a ‘demonstrator’ cow, and ‘observer’ cows were watching,” said Edwards-Callaway. “Over time, animals changed their distance to the handler and built a relationship.”

Although the study had mixed results, researchers agreed animals that clearly saw another cow being treated gently adjusted their distance to that handler accordingly.

Animals clearly learn from social experiences, but learning can be complicated by their environment. Human behavior is as important, and sometimes more important, regarding animal responses.

“We don’t always think about how our actions impact what animals pick up by watching humans,” said Edwards-Callaway. “Human attitudes toward animals will influence their behavior around animals. With more positive interactions and less negative behaviors, cows avoid humans less. People who are agreeable use more positive interactions.”

Eliminating negative HAIs on farms begins with reducing negative handling events. The goal for handling animals should be to provide an overall good experience – not bad or neutral.

What helps animals establish positive perceptions of humans? When faced with unfamiliar events, animals typically respond with fear. “Habituation is the reduction of the fear response resulting from repeated exposure,” said Edwards-Callaway. “Classical conditioning is associative learning – animals associate human presence with something positive.”

Gentle stroking of cows, calm movement around animals, low-stress handling, patience, attention to pressure and the flight zone and appropriate group size can all contribute to positive experiences for animals.

Low-stress handling benefits cows and people

Animals learn through how humans interact with them, even indirectly. “How are animals generalizing what they learned about certain interactions, both good and bad?” asked Edwards-Callaway. “We need to make every interaction count positively. Increase positive interactions and decrease the occurrence of negative interactions for all animals in all locations.”

Humans can determine whether positive interactions have helped to improve animals’ perceptions of how they’re handled. Animals signal positive perceptions of humans through a variety of indicators including relaxed ear posture, low tail, half-closed or closed eyes, acceptance of stroking or touch and their willingness to be close to a handler.

One interesting study was designed to determine whether cows benefited from positive handling prior to potentially stress-inducing veterinary procedures. One group of dairy cows was managed by one person who used positive handling techniques for four weeks prior to a veterinary procedure while another cow group on the same farm was managed by a different person who used routine, neutral handling.

“They performed rectal palpation, left the animal alone in the restraints or left the animal with a different handler,” said Edwards-Callaway. “In general, the group that had positive handling for four weeks prior had lower heart rates, kicked less and were less restless during restraint.” Through intentionally adding positive experiences to animals’ daily lives, animals are better equipped to handle potentially stressful events.

A variety of measures can be used on the farm to promote positive experiences for animals, beginning with the people who handle them. Animal handling training is critical, and it’s important for managers to recognize that some employees might be more suited for jobs on the dairy that don’t involve interaction with animals.

“Explain the ‘why’ to people during animal training for employees so they understand why a positive interaction with humans is important to the animal,” said Edwards-Callaway. “It helps people understand the relevancy of the job task, and it also helps motivate them to do the job well. Show by doing and promote positive interactions when working with animals. Listen to both successes and challenges and have open conversations.”

Select people who have positive experiences working with livestock and remove those with negative animal interactions. Allow enough time for people to complete chores so they aren’t rushed or stressed and promote a quiet environment for cows. Facilities designed for easy, natural animal movement with good footing and lighting also help reduce stress on both animals and handlers.

There are times when working with animals isn’t easy or enjoyable, so it’s important to listen to workers’ frustrations to support them and provide training as necessary. In some cases, employees who are not naturally adept at working with animals are willing to be trained and may turn out to be proficient animal handlers.

Daily HAIs can lead to relationships that make it difficult to make end-of-life decisions. Edwards-Callaway described dairy farm focus group studies on euthanasia decision-making. “Animal welfare and empathy for the cows they care for consistently comes up as a theme,” she said. “Despite understanding euthanasia can be a good option, it’s hard to make such decisions.”

Interactions with cows can have deep and lasting impacts on humans. “The compassion dairy caretakers have toward animals they care for can sometimes make their job enjoyable and rewarding, but it can also make their job challenging,” said Edwards-Callaway. “People outside the industry don’t understand how real those challenges are.”

by Sally Colby