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Scientists help chickens relax
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Work, relationships and a host of other variables cause tension in people, but what stresses animals?
A team of Mississippi State University researchers led by poultry scientist Paul Thaxton is letting chickens "tell" them what produces stress in their lives. Their initial work was with broilers, and the team is currently studying laying hens.
The research shows that being allowed to roam unrestrained, often referred to as free-range, may not be the ideal lifestyle for a chicken.
"We've collected data on chickens in a variety of environments -- from a completely open space to close confinement," Thaxton said, adding that the most important factor in keeping a chicken "happy" is not the type of confinement, but rather its social situation.
"If you want to see a layer exhibit classic severe stress response, simply fix her environment so she can't see another chicken," he said. "Chickens are social animals -- they naturally live in flocks. To be content, they want and need to have close interactions with other chickens."
Signs of stress in chickens include rapid loss of 10 to 15 percent of body weight over a one-week period, along with a moderate increase in feed consumption and a dramatic increase in water intake.
Once complete, the research will provide producers with information on the type of environment that will help make their birds more productive by keeping them from becoming "stressed out."
Thaxton's work may have applications to more than just poultry, according to Chet Crum, president of GenSpec Foods, a Gainesville, Ga.-based manufacturer of high-nutrition poultry specialty foods.
"The work Dr. Thaxton is doing is certainly valuable for the poultry industry, but it's also exciting because the chicken is an excellent model for understanding stress in other species, including humans," he said.
The research is supported by the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station and is being conducted in MSU's Department of Poultry Science. It is one of several current research projects at Mississippi State in support of the state's poultry industry.
Contact: Dr. Paul Thaxton, (662) 325-3377