Livestock Research: Animal Welfare Research Group

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    Our Vision:
    Livestock Research Branch: World-class partner in delivering applied and innovative solutions for a sustainable and vibrant Alberta.
    Mission Statement:
    Enable the Alberta livestock industry to use research-based knowledge and technology to enhance competitiveness.

About Us

Who we are
Nigel Cook - Research Scientist
Denise Froehlich - Animal Physiology and Biochemistry Technician

What we do
Our team conducts original and applied research in the area of animal health and welfare focusing on:
  • Developing automated systems to remotely measure animal temperature by infrared thermography.
  • Develop and apply biomarkers of stress, pain and health status of livestock species, using minimally-invasive samples, e.g. saliva, feces, hair, feathers.
Why we do it
  • Febrile diseases can be detected in changes to radiated body heat, often before changes to core body temperature. Measuring radiated heat by infrared thermography provides an early warning of disease. Current research is focused on swine barns and in beef cattle feedlots, but is equally applicable to poultry and dairy barns.
  • Increases in radiated temperature respond to immunological challenges such as vaccination. The response is being used to compare the febrile effects of different vaccines to the same pathogens.
  • Radiated body heat is a reflection of underlying metabolic processes. Energetically-challenged animals conserve heat by reducing radiated energy losses. Thus, measuring radiated heat may be used to identify those animals that are more metabolically efficient. Current research in this area is focused on swine and beef cattle.
  • Pain can be detected by a short, sharp decline in radiated temperature of the lachrymal region of the eye due vasoconstriction. This response is used to study effects of procedures that are potentially painful, e.g. tail docking and castration of pigs, or to compare methods of pain relief.
  • Stressors such as handling and transport induce metabolic changes in a host of biochemical compounds, including steroid hormones and acute phase proteins. Measurement of corticosteroids in minimally-invasive samples provides a means of assessing stress responses of animals with minimum disturbance due to sample collection.
Current Projects

Projects are focussed on the minimally-invasive assessment of disease detection, stress-resistance and metabolic efficiency. The following are short descriptions of current research studies.

1. Repeatability of radiated thermal measurements of beef steers. The objective is to test if measurement of radiated temperature is a quantitative biomarker of an animal’s thermoregulatory processes in relation to underlying metabolic activity, and responses to environmental conditions. Repeatability of radiated thermal measurements over time is a necessary requirement to utilise these measurements as a biomarker of thermoregulation.

2. Testing the efficacy of infrared imaging of groups of piglets to detect febrile responses to vaccination. Two different vaccines from different manufacturers are being used to model febrile response of piglets. Thermographic images are taken with an infrared camera mounted on the ceiling of the barn. The objective is to determine if a range in febrile responses can be detected from infrared images of groups of pigs in a pen.

3. Thermal and behavioural responses of weaned piglets to medicated and non-medicated feed. Previous research has indicated that thermal responses and clustering behaviour following vaccination have the potential for the early and automated detection of diseases of piglets. In this study the goal is to test these measurements for disease detection. A range in morbidity rates of weaned piglets is encouraged by withholding medicated feed from some animals. Radiated temperature and clustering behaviours are determined from the same infrared images recorded every 5 minutes.

4. Detection of febrile episodes due to illness in grower pigs by automated measures of feed intake, animal growth and radiated heat losses using infrared thermography. The goal is to test if infrared thermography of groups of pigs and of individual animals can be used to detect febrile responses related to illness in grower pigs. This is supported by the automated measurement of animal weight and feed consumption. The study is conducted on the same animals as used in Study #3 after the nursery groups are combined and transferred to a commercial pen. The pigs are individually tagged with EID and are fed using an automated feeding system that records individual pig weight and feed consumption. An infrared camera is mounted on the feeding system and records thermal images of each individual animal. In addition, a ceiling-mounted infrared camera records thermal images of the pen of animal every 5 minutes. The information being gathered includes animal weight, growth, feed consumption and temperature. These data are matched with daily observations of health status.

5. Testing the ability of infrared thermography to detect metabolically efficient grower pigs. The goal is to determine if thermal responses can be used to predict feed-efficient pigs by testing the thermoregulatory responses of grower pigs to 24 hours of feed withdrawal. The repeatability of the responses to feed withdrawal is tested 3 times during the grower phase. Infrared images are recorded of the pen every 5 minutes throughout the grower phase. Infrared images of individual animals are captured each time an animal enters an automated feeding system (Study #4). The hypothesis is that the most metabolically efficient animals will be those that exhibit the largest declines in radiated temperatures in response to feed withdrawal.

6. Repeatability in stress responses of grower pigs. Saliva samples are collected from pigs immediately prior to and following 24h of feed withdrawal (Study #5). Cortisol is measured in these samples as a biomarker of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis response to stress. The test is conducted three times during the grower phase to determine repeatability. At market weight pigs are transported for 1 hour prior to arrival at the abattoir of the Lacombe Research Centre. Saliva samples for analysis of cortisol are collected prior to and following transport. The objective is to test if there is correlation between stress responses to feed withdrawal and transport. This would provide demonstration that a dynamic test of HPA activity might be used to identify stress-resistant animals.

7. Carcass characteristics of metabolically-efficient and stress-resistance pigs. This study is in collaboration with Dr. Manuel Juarez (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada). The objective is to determine if the pigs identified in Studies #4, #5 and #6 as feed-efficient or stress-resistant animals exhibit differences in carcass characteristics.

Examples of infrared images of a bison, cow eye and group of pigs


Book Chapters

  • Schaefer A, Cook NJ. Heat generation and the role of infrared thermography in pathological conditions. In: Luzi F, Mitchell M, Costa LN, Redaelli V, editors. Thermography: Current status and advances in livestock animals and in veterinary medicine. Brescia: Fondazionne Iniziative Zooprofilacttiche E Zootecniche; 2013. p. 69-78. ISBN 978-88-97562-06-1.
  • Cook NJ, Schaefer AL. Infrared thermography and disease surveillance. In: Luzi F, Mitchell M, Costa LN, Redaelli V, editors. Thermography: Current status and advances in livestock animals and in veterinary medicine. Brescia: Fondazione Iniziative Zooprofilattiche E Zootecniche; 2013. p. 79-89. ISBN 978-88-97562-06-1.
Peer-reviewed Articles Magazine Articles Presentations


Animal modelTitle
PigsInfrared thermography of groups of pigs detects thermal responses to vaccination
Laying hensEgg yolk and albumin Corticosterone and excreta corticoid metabolite concentrations as non-invasive markers of stress in laying hens (Gallus gallus domesticus)

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For more information about the content of this document, contact Miranda Smit.
This information published to the web on November 17, 2014.
Last Reviewed/Revised on July 14, 2016.