UNDERSTANDING THE SIGNIFICANCE OF PLAY BEHAVIOUR TO ANIMAL WELFARE IN THE PIG
Play behaviour is commonly observed in young mammals. Play has some resemblance to adult behaviours (e.g. running; play fighting) but at the same time is recognisably different, being performed in an exaggerated, energetic and repetitive manner.
There is much interest in the biology of play especially in the neuroscience underlying play behaviour. Play has also been linked to animal welfare partly because play behaviour is reduced in response to challenges such as hunger and partly because animal play appears to be ‘enjoyable’. Hence play has been proposed as a potential indicator of positive welfare.
One commonly used approach to understand the causes and significance of behaviour is to study behavioural differences between individuals or groups of animals. Study of play behaviour in piglets has shown that there are strong and consistent differences in play between litters of pigs and that these differences are positively correlated to the rate that piglets are growing.
When play is studied over weaning it appears that litters respond differently to the challenge of weaning with indications that litters that are growing well before weaning are more adversely affected in terms of their play behaviour. These results support the use of play as an indicator of behavioural and physical development and potentially as a sensitive welfare indicator during early stages of life.