Effects of social contact on reversal learning and fear of novel objects in dairy calves

Social deprivation in early life impairs certain types of learning and can induce anxiety and lasting behavioural abnormalities in rodents and primates. We tested whether the common practice of individual housing had similar effects on dairy calves compared to housing in pairs or groups, and whether social contact beginning at six weeks could prevent these effects. We found that housing pre-weaned calves individually on dairy farms reduces the flexibility of their learning, as indicated by poor performance in a reversal task, that even approximately a week of social contact before training has some cognitive benefits, and that having a single social companion from early life is almost as beneficial for reversal performance as being in a large, dynamic group. The learning deficits did not seem to be explained by anxiety, and only complex group housing reduced fear of novel objects.


Article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0132828