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The impact of chronic environmental stressors on growing pigs, Sus scrofa (Part 1): stress physiology, production and play behaviour

  • E. A. O’Connor (a1), M. O. Parker (a1), M. A. McLeman (a1), T. G. Demmers (a1), J. C. Lowe (a1), L. Cui (a1) (a2), E. L. Davey (a1), R. C. Owen (a1), C. M. Wathes (a1) and S. M. Abeyesinghe (a1)...

Abstract

Commercially farmed animals are frequently housed in conditions that impose a number of concurrent environmental stressors. For pigs housed indoors, elevated levels of mechanical noise, atmospheric ammonia and low light intensities are commonplace. This experiment examined the effects on growing pigs of chronic exposure to combinations of commercially relevant levels of these potential stressors. Four-week-old hybrid female pigs (n = 224) were housed under experimentally manipulated conditions of nominally either <5 or 20 ppm atmospheric concentration of ammonia (24 h), a light intensity of 40 lux or 200 lux (12 h) and mechanical noise at either ⩽60 or 80 dB(A) (24 h) for 15 weeks in a fully factorial arrangement (23) of treatments. The response of pigs to these environmental factors was assessed using a suite of physiological, production and behavioural measures. These included indicators of hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis activation such as salivary cortisol and adrenal morphometry, as well as body weight, food conversion efficiency and general health scores. Play behaviour was recorded as it is thought to be inversely related to stress. Chronic exposure to ammonia produced the strongest effect, shown by lower concentrations of salivary cortisol and larger adrenal cortices in the pigs reared under 20 ppm ammonia, which may have been indicative of a period of HPA activation leading to a downregulation of cortisol production. The pigs in the ammoniated rooms also performed less play behaviour than pigs in non-ammoniated rooms. There was evidence for an interaction between high noise and ammonia on the health scores of pigs and for brighter light to ameliorate the effect of ammonia on salivary cortisol. However, there was no measurable impact of these potential stressors on the productivity of the pigs or any of the other physiological parameters measured. We conclude that there should be little concern in terms of performance about the physical stressors tested here, within current European Union legal limits. However, 20 ppm ammonia may have had an adverse influence on the well-being of growing pigs. In this study, all other aspects of the pigs’ husbandry were optimal; therefore, it is possible that under less favourable conditions, more pronounced effects of ammonia, noise and dim light would be observed.

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