Notes: Temple Grandin Lecture – May 23, 2012

Way back in May, Renee and I attended a lecture delivered by Temple Grandin right here in Brandon Manitoba! The conference room at the Victoria Inn was packed with approximately 700 individuals from all walks of life. To say the crowd was diverse is an understatement. There were folks dressed up in their western best (including hat and belt buckle), there were folks in suits, folks from the hutterite colonies and folks of all ages including what appeared to be 3 generations of one family.

Since this lecture was sponsored by the Manitoba Pork Council and the Manitoba Beef Producers, it was geared towards the welfare of animals raised for food production (meat, milk, eggs etc.). That being said, a lot of what Temple Grandin had to say about farm animals is also applicable to companion animals.

The gentleman who introduced Temple Grandin (I don’t remember his name) spoke of animal welfare in terms of Brambell’s  five freedoms, developed from a British report on livestock husbandry in 1965. These freedoms are:

  • Freedom from hunger or thirst
  • Freedom from discomfort
  • Freedom from pain, injury or disease
  • Freedom to express normal behavior
  • Freedom from fear and distress

One of they key concepts that kept resurfacing during the lecture was that reducing an animal’s stress can improve their lives in a multitude of ways. In the case of commercial livestock operations, lower stress means healthier animals which in turns means more profit. In the dog training world, I think folks are just beginning to fully understand stress in dogs and how it can affect their health, well being, behavior and performance. The following constitutes my notes from the lecture with my toughts written in bold italics.

Environmental Stress

Where cows live and the conditions under which they are raised can affect cattle behavior. Cattle that are used to humans, to cattle chutes (to collect cattle for transportation or medical procedures) and allowed to explore their environment are easier to handle and they have higher weight gains than those that are forced into new environments and new situations with new people. In fact, research has proven that when animals voluntarily cooperate during a procedure their bodies produce less cortisol (a stress hormone) than when they are forced into the procedure.

I see this every day at dog daycare and as a trainer who uses positive reinforcement to teach new behaviors, I understand and see how much more relaxed dogs are when they are used to volunteering behaviors to earn rewards compared to when they are used being forced to do something in order to avoid punishment.

Genetic Stress

Producers need to understand that when they over select for one trait (like faster growth) they may be loosing others (health bones that can support the weight of a heavy bird). She calls this bad becoming normal. Since sow stalls are a hot button topic she suggested that many of today’s sows would not be able to live in a group environment because farmers have been breeding pigs for lean mass, growth rate etc and they have no idea what temperaments they have been breeding because breeding sows are largely been isolated as a matter of course. Her suggestion is that in order to find an alternative to these stalls, part of the solution is going to involve including temperament in the traits that are selected for during the breeding process.

In the dog world the most obvious example of this is in purebred Bulldogs, many of which cannot reproduce, deliver puppies or breathe naturally. In the UK rules have been introduced to make breeders (at least those involved in dog shows) more accountable for the health of their breed but in other countries like Canada, breed health is largely left to individual breeders. Some are breeding for conformation or looks that win dog shows. Some are breeding for temperament and working ability (police dogs, guide dogs and some sport dog breeders) and an even smaller fraction of breeders are trying to maintain the entire package of a physically sound dog, with a wonderful temperament that will live a long, healthy life. In the designer dog world and backyards around the country, the exact same thing is going on only people are breeding for ‘small’ dogs regardless of health and temperament. I am not either for or against purebred dogs but I am certainly for a dog that can enjoy a walk with his owner, without collapsing because it can’t breathe, lunging at everything that walks by or dissolving into a puddle of stress – whatever the breed, or mix of breeds.

End of life Stress

Dr. Grandin also spoke of  how animals that enter the plant quietly and calmly, are  more likely to be effectively stunned prior to slaughter. During the question and answer session, one gentleman asked about how he could ensure humane euthanasia on the farm since processing plants no longer accept sick or dying animals – even if it is to dispose of them humanely. Dr. Grandin’s reply was that one of the things to keep in mind was the animal’s level of suffering either on the farm until it dies of illness injury or disease or en route to the plant because it was unfit for transport. She spoke of how (especially with companion animals) technology has come so far that now we are able to keep animals living longer but she states that sometimes a long life is not a better life. If I remember correctly, her exact words were “a dog with cancer does not know chemotherapy will make him better. He just knows he’s suffering.”

It had never occurred to me that farmers would struggle with ending the lives of sick and dying animals the way pet owners do. In many ways, I suppose it is worse – farmers struggle with the loss of an animal and the additional stress of the accompanying financial loss. As a business owner, of a relatively new business, I have first hand experience worrying about financial losses but, I never have to add the stress of euthanizing and animal to that equation and I can only imagine the loss of an animal and that is also costing you financially creates an extra helping of guilt.

Changing Behavior with regards to animal welfare

It would seem that animal welfare audits are becoming more common place in slaughterhouses. According to Grandin this is not because producers decided to raise their livestock to a certain standard or because buyers (large corporations like McDonalds) decided that they should only buy meat from animals that are ethically and sustainably raised. This change was largely the result of consumer demand for healthy food and ethically produced food. Consumers put pressure on large buyers, large buyers change their standards to appease consumers and slaughter/processing plants livestock transportation companies and individual producers are forced to follow suit if they want to stay in business.

When it comes to dogs, I think we face the particular challenge that companion animals are not regulated to the degree that ‘food’ animals are. You can trace the origin of your steak down to the cow however many dogs sold online, in newspapers and on websites are untraceable if the breeders are not using registered purebred stock. Further more, there is no guarantee that your dog will be healthy or even tempered just because you purchase from a registered breeder because there is no mechanism currently available to make Breeders do health testing on their breeding stock and even if they could, the complexities of genetics are always expressed in different ways in any breeding. We all know how we are both similar and different from our siblings an the same goes for dogs. 9 out of 10 puppies may be mentally sound but one may suffer from crippling fear for it’s entire lifetime, regardless of the planning and care taken when choosing breeding stock.

The breeding of cats and dogs is an unregulated industry and there are no large buyers so it is left up to individual consumers to determine whether their pet is coming from a breeder or rescue that is truly concerned with providing animals with the best health and welfare possible.

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