Stress test—how scientists can measure how animals are feeling

July 10, 2017, University of Western Sydney
Stress test—how scientists can measure how animals are feeling
Credit: University of Western Sydney

To help determine how stress is affecting animals across Australia, researchers at Western Sydney University are utilising non-invasive methods to help farmers, zookeepers and pet owners ensure their animals are happy and healthy.

Stress is an important biological response for as it helps their bodies prepare to fight or flee from danger. But many animals in the modern world are forced to coexist with humans in farms, zoos or homes, and the onset of can have devastating results, both for them and their owners.

"Stress can affect the weight of farm animals, leading to losses for animal producers, and can disrupt the breeding patterns of endangered animals in captivity," says Dr Edward Narayan, Senior Lecturer in Animal Science, from the School of Science and Health.

"Here at Western Sydney University we are working with clients to collect animal scats under routine husbandry and run them through our laboratories to measure stress levels."

When a stress result is sparked in an animal, the brain-body starts to release biomolecules such as cortisol, which is the main stress hormone in large animals such as humans, elephants and sheep. Ultimately, this cortisol is broken up by the kidneys, and ends up in excreta.

"By testing these scats, we can monitor and track animals from a distance and gain a snapshot and new understanding of their mood and health," says Dr Narayan.

Credit: University of Western Sydney

This research comes under the umbrella of conservation physiology, a rapidly expanding field of study that measures the physiological responses of organisms subject to human interference. While the traditional field of conservation biology seeks to manage the natural environment to help protect threatened species, conservation physiology is a way to improve the health and happiness of animals in contact with humans.

For animals, a life with minimal stress is linked to happiness, as high stress reflects fear and anxiety. In most cases, happiness for animals revolves around the daily needs for survival, such as securing food and shelter. By reducing stress among animals, scientists can help them redirect energy often used for survival to other uses, such as increasing fat reserves and reproduction.

"Considering human activity has pushed the world to the sixth mass extinction event, measuring the of native animals may help conserve their dwindling numbers by providing real-time data on species' physiological resilience and vulnerabilities towards anthropogenic induced environmental changes. By having access to this data, researchers are able to help direct conservation and management efforts towards at-risk species," says Dr Narayan.

The potential applications are vast, as the studies can be replicated across species living in different settings, from koalas in nature parks, to sheep in pasture, and even domestic animals in apartments. It also enables researchers to monitor population health during management interventions, such as species translocation and invasive pest species eradication programs.

"At the moment, we're working with sheep farmers in regional Australia to help monitor the physiological markers of their animals, with the ultimate aim of tracking their mood. By ensuring the sheep are stress free, we can improve their productivity in terms of meat quality and reproduction. In addition, we're also working with international animal rescue programs such as Animals Asia to provide crucial data on the stress physiology of Asiatic black bears being rescued from bile farms in Vietnam."

In addition to analysing scats, Dr Narayan and researchers at Western Sydney University also examine other samples, such as hairs and urine. The researchers are planning to utilise drone technology to help farmers in remote locations track their animals as they are moved across vast distances. The tests can even be ordered by domestic animal owners looking to track the stress responses of their pets.

"Cats and dogs are very prevalent in Australia, and are obviously affected by human behaviour. For example, a dog may be stressed if it's not provided with tender loving care, or a cat may be upset if it's not able to access a warm space in winter. What the non-invasive tests can measure is their stress responses over time, giving us baseline indicators of their mood and allowing us to intervene if necessary by pinpointing the moments of great in their lives, and working backwards to discover the cause."

Explore further: Shearing of alpacas is necessary, but also stressful

Related Stories

Shearing of alpacas is necessary, but also stressful

May 12, 2017

Alpacas, a species of New World camelids, have very thick wool. This requires them to be shorn regularly, just like sheep. But shearing is a source of stress for the animals. This has now been confirmed for the first time ...

Captive meerkats at risk of stress

April 18, 2017

Small groups of meerkats—such as those commonly seen in zoos and safari parks—are at greater risk of chronic stress, new research suggests.

One hormone to rule them all

November 2, 2016

Identifying stress hormones in insects can be a step towards environmentally friendly pesticides. Researchers from Stockholm University have discovered that one hormone coordinates the responses to stress in fruit flies. ...

Can aromatherapy calm competition horses?

April 26, 2017

Although studies suggest that inhaling certain scents may reduce stress in humans, aromatherapy is relatively unexplored in veterinary medicine. But new research presented today at the American Physiological Society (APS) ...

Personality tests for fish could boost reproduction rates

November 9, 2016

Aquaculture experts from the University of Stirling and the Institute for Food and Agricultural Research and Technology (IRTA) in Catalonia, have found the way fish, Senegalese sole, cope with stress is determined by their ...

Recommended for you

Matter waves and quantum splinters

March 25, 2019

Physicists in the United States, Austria and Brazil have shown that shaking ultracold Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) can cause them to either divide into uniform segments or shatter into unpredictable splinters, depending ...

How tree diversity regulates invading forest pests

March 25, 2019

A national-scale study of U.S. forests found strong relationships between the diversity of native tree species and the number of nonnative pests that pose economic and ecological threats to the nation's forests.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.