Tail biting in pigs: Blood serotonin and fearfulness as pieces of the puzzle?

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Abstract

Tail biting in pigs is a widespread problem in intensive pig farming. The tendency to develop this damaging behaviour has been suggested to relate to serotonergic functioning and personality characteristics of pigs. We investigated whether tail biting in pigs can be associated with blood serotonin and with their behavioural and physiological responses to novelty. Pigs (n = 480) were born in conventional farrowing pens and after weaning at four weeks of age they were either housed barren (B) or in straw-enriched (E) pens. Individual pigs were exposed to a back test and novel environment test before weaning, and after weaning to a novel object (i.e. bucket) test in an unfamiliar arena. A Principal Component Analysis on behaviours during the tests and salivary cortisol (novel object test only) revealed five factors for both housing systems, labeled 'Early life exploration', 'Near bucket', 'Cortisol', 'Vocalizations & standing alert', and 'Back test activity'. Blood samples were taken at 8, 9 and 22 weeks of age to determine blood platelet serotonin. In different phases of life, pigs were classified as tail biter/non-tail biter based on tail biting behaviour, and as victim/non-victim based on tail wounds. A combination of both classifications resulted in four pig types: biters, victims, biter/victims, and neutrals. Generally, only in phases of life during which pigs were classified as tail biters, they seemed to have lower blood platelet serotonin storage and higher blood platelet uptake velocities. Victims also seemed to have lower blood serotonin storage. Additionally, in B housing, tail biters seemed to consistently have lower scores of the factor 'Near bucket', possibly indicating a higher fearfulness in tail biters. Further research is needed to elucidate the nature of the relationship between peripheral 5-HT, fearfulness and tail biting, and to develop successful strategies and interventions to prevent and reduce tail biting.

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Ursinus, W. W., Van Reenen, C. G., Reimert, I., & Bolhuis, J. E. (2014). Tail biting in pigs: Blood serotonin and fearfulness as pieces of the puzzle? PLoS ONE, 9(9). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0107040

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