Notes from a Veterinary Conference: Stress in Animals
I just got back from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) convention in Denver. I thought I’d spend the next few weeks passing on some of the interesting tidbits I picked up there.
I learned a lot and also was reminded that veterinarians are very special group of people. I’m sure there were a few of us drank who too much, skipped sessions, and generally were there to have a good time rather than learn and network, but the number of folks who showed up early in the morning (coffee cups clutched like lifelines) or stayed into the evening for the later classes was truly impressive. I even overheard a group of vets sitting behind me complaining that they could only be in one class at a time but that they’d be sure to review the notes from the other sessions they had to miss. Now that’s dedication!
One of the funniest stories I’ve ever heard about what a committed group veterinarians tend to be centers around another convention that is held every year in Las Vegas. For years, the meeting had taken place at a particular casino but then had to move to a different facility. Rumor has it that the management of the original casino was frustrated by the fact that the veterinarians in attendance actually went to class and therefore spent little money gambling (unlike other professional organizations, I suppose). I also heard that they thought all the vets in their rumpled chinos sitting on the ground reading over convention notes did not exude the “atmosphere” they were looking to portray. Vets have never been known for a glamorous sense of style.
Okay — on to weightier subjects.
One of my favorite presentations was given by Temple Grandin, Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. Her talks are always a lot of fun as well as being very informative, and this one did not disappoint. She talked about stress in animals; here are a few of the highlights:
- When animals become stressed it takes 20-30 minutes for them to calm down. It is often best to just let them be for a half hour before trying to do whatever is needed again.
- Heavy boned animals tend to be calmer than light boned individuals. As an example, if you are looking for a Labrador retriever to be a service dog, pick one who is short and stocky rather than long and lean.
- For species who have hair whorls on their foreheads (cattle, horses, etc.), the lower the swirl, the calmer the individual tends to be.
- Stress leads to dramatic changes in an animal’s physiology (e.g., increases in cortisol and lactate). To get the best laboratory results, research findings, meat quality, etc., stress must be dealt with.
- Animals remember via very specific images and sounds. When something “bad” happens, they will likely associate it with their picture of what was happening at that moment. Dr. Grandin gave the example of a horse who was hurt by a man wearing a black cowboy hat. People in white hats were okay, and a black hat on the ground was no threat, but the horse’s stress level rose as she lifted the hat towards her head.
- An animal’s first experience with a new stimulus should always be positive or at least neutral. A negative first experience can be difficult to overcome.
- We need to start breeding animals for what is optimal in a big picture sense of the word. Genes are connected in weird ways and when we push too far in one direction, the law of unintended consequences usually comes into effect.
Dr. Jennifer Coates