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Physiol Behav. 2011 Jul 6;103(5):445-52. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2011.03.017. Epub 2011 Mar 23.

Behavioural and cardiac responses towards conspecific distress calls in domestic pigs (Sus scrofa).

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Research Unit Behavioural Physiology, Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology, Wilhelm-Stahl-Allee 2, D-18196 Dummerstorf, Germany.


In domestic pigs, vocalisation can be an indicator of distress and negative emotional states. It might play a role in the transfer of emotion between individuals ('emotional contagion' or 'empathy'), which could result in impaired animal welfare on a group level based on the distress in an individual member of the group. The aim of this study was to characterise the responses of pigs to conspecific distress calls. We performed a playback experiment in an open arena with 24 juvenile German Landrace pigs, during which individual subjects were exposed to both conspecific distress calls and an artificial sine tone (control) on consecutive experimental days. Both behavioural (locomotion, vocalisation, elimination and distance to the speakers) and physiological responses (heart rate and heart rate variability) were measured for 2 min before, during and after the playback of the stimuli (distress calls/control). Subjects showed decreased locomotion and vocalisation rates during both stimuli, suggesting that the animals responded to both stimuli. Heart rates decreased at the onset of both stimuli due to an activation of the parasympathetic system, indicating an orientation response to sudden stimuli. However, heart rates decreased after the end of the distress calls but not after control stimuli, illustrating that conspecific calls and other sounds are evaluated differently. We conclude that pigs exposed to isolation are attentive to conspecific distress vocalisation and hence the information about threat possibly conveyed in it, but they do not share the distress of the caller. Therefore, we could not find direct effects of distress calls of unfamiliar conspecifics on the welfare of isolated juvenile pigs. However, the state of heightened attention elicited by conspecific distress calls may affect a pig's subsequent evaluation of its environment.

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