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Open AccessArticle

The Effect of Virtual Fencing Stimuli on Stress Responses and Behavior in Sheep

School of Environmental and Rural Science, University of New England, Armidale, NSW 2350, Australia
Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Agriculture and Food, Locked Bag 1, Armidale, NSW 2350, Australia
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Animals 2019, 9(1), 30;
Received: 4 December 2018 / Revised: 9 January 2019 / Accepted: 18 January 2019 / Published: 21 January 2019
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Impact of Environment and Stressors on Animal Welfare)
Virtual fencing is a new technology that uses audio signals and electrical stimuli to spatially control animals without the need for fixed fencing. It involves avoidance learning whereby the animals learn to respond to an audio cue (conditioning stimulus) to avoid receiving an aversive electrical stimulus (unconditioned stimulus). The audio cue is used to warn the animal that it is approaching the boundary and should be benign and not perceived as aversive to the animal. While a positive punishment stimulus is necessary for learning, it should not be so aversive to the animal that it impinges on its welfare. This study aimed to determine how the stimuli used in virtual fencing are perceived by the animal when they are first encountered. The audio and electrical stimuli were compared to other commonly encountered stimuli in normal sheep production systems, including a barking dog and a restraint procedure. The physiological and behavioral responses of sheep indicated that sheep were no more adversely impacted by virtual fencing stimuli than they were by other commonly encountered stimuli. The least to most aversive treatments were: Control < Beep < Barking Dog < Electrical stimulus < Restraint.
To understand the animal welfare impact of virtual fencing stimuli (audio cue ‘beep’ and electrical stimulus) on naïve sheep, it is necessary to assess stress responses during the animal’s first encounters with these stimuli. Eighty Merino ewes were exposed to one of the following treatments (n = 16 animals per treatment): Control (no stimuli), beep, dog bark, manual restraint, and electrical stimulus. Collars were used to apply the audio and electrical stimuli. The restraint treatment showed an elevated cortisol response compared with the control (p < 0.05), but there were no differences between the other treatments and the control. There were no differences between treatments in vaginal temperature (p > 0.05). For behaviors, the sheep receiving the bark and beep treatments were more vigilant compared to the control (p < 0.05), there were more aversive responses observed in the electrical stimulus treatment compared to the control. Together, the responses showed that the beep stimuli were largely benign, the bark stimuli was minimally aversive, the electrical stimuli was acutely aversive, and the restraint was moderately aversive. These data suggest that, for sheep, their first exposure to the virtual fencing stimuli should be perceived as less aversive than a commonly used restraint procedure. View Full-Text
Keywords: Animal welfare; avoidance learning; behavior; body temperature; cortisol; ear postures; electric shock; livestock; stress; vigilance Animal welfare; avoidance learning; behavior; body temperature; cortisol; ear postures; electric shock; livestock; stress; vigilance
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Kearton, T.; Marini, D.; Cowley, F.; Belson, S.; Lee, C. The Effect of Virtual Fencing Stimuli on Stress Responses and Behavior in Sheep. Animals 2019, 9, 30.

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