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Exploring heifers' perception of ‘positive’ treatment through their motivation to pursue a retreated human

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 January 2023

CE Bertenshaw*
School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE1 7RU, UK
P Rowlinson
School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE1 7RU, UK
* Contact for correspondence and requests for reprints:


This pilot study investigates dairy heifers' perception of ‘positive treatment’ by a human (stroking and brushing) through a test of appetitive motivation. The hypothesis was that positive treatment by a human results in heifers pursuing a human to seek further positive treatment. Thirty-seven dairy heifers were assigned to either minimal human contact or positive treatment during rearing for five minutes per week, for a total of four hours, between ages six to 24 months. Six months after treatment ceased, the heifers were tested in a suite of four sequential tests, conducted while free ranging in their home pen with a group of familiar conspecifics. The tests explored whether dairy heifers that received positive treatment had: 1) a lower flight distance than controls; 2) accepted initial positive treatment during the test; and (for those who voluntarily re-approached and interacted with the human after the human had retreated) whether this was due to 3) curiosity; or 4) motivation for further positive treatment. Positive treatment heifers had a lower flight distance in component 1 of the test and more of this group voluntarily approached the human compared to the control heifers. The positive treatment allowed more initial positive treatment (component 2) and sought further positive treatment in components 3 and 4. It is concluded that ‘positive’ treatment is rewarding for many heifers. It is suggested that positive treatment constitutes environmental enrichment of dairy cattle and can enhance cattle's quality of life and the human-animal relationship.

© 2008 Universities Federation for Animal Welfare

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