Animal Welfare and Health

Dr Niamh O'Connell

Animal Health and Welfare

Maximising the health of food-producing species is vital for good animal welfare, production of safe food and ensuring sustainable returns for producers.  Consumers also value high levels of animal welfare as part of a sustainable food chain and are increasingly making purchasing decisions on this basis. Scientists within the Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) work with local and international partners to conduct fundamental and applied research in targeted areas of animal and fish health, and in animal behaviour and welfare.

Animal health

The research conducted by our animal health scientists has had global impact. Prof. Gordon Allan and his team isolated and characterised the causative virus of post-weaning multisystemic wasting syndrome in pigs and were involved in the development of vaccines that are used worldwide to control this major disease.  This team continues to work at an international level on novel molecular detection methods for emerging viral infections of pigs.  They also conduct work on the use of nutritional additives to control the severity of viral and bacterial infections in pigs (thereby reducing antibiotic use and increasing production parameters).  Work is also ongoing by other scientists in relation to multidrug resistance, particularly in E. coli, to understand and control negative impacts on livestock and companion animals.  Novel research is also being conducted to investigate the energetic implications of bacterial and parasitic diseases of animals with the aim of developing control mechanisms.

Mycotoxins are the products of fungi that can infect many crops used to feed farm animals (maize and wheat for example). Due to climate change and the increased use of feed materials such as distillers grains there's growing evidence that animals are being exposed to high levels of emerging mycotoxins (i.e. non regulated toxins). The impact on the health, reproductive fitness and overall performance of animals exposed to these toxins is an unknown. Research in IGFS using state of the art technologies to measure multiple mycotoxins in animal feed materials is being conducted to determine levels of exposure. This research is led by Prof. Chris Elliott.

Animal behaviour and welfare

Much of the research by animal welfare scientists within IGFS focuses on pain.  In particular, there is a significant research programme aimed at determining possible pain experience of decapod crustaceans during capture and processing.  More broadly, our animal welfare researchers are also engaged in developing methods of assessment and understanding of pain and stress across several species. 

There is also a more applied research programme aimed at reducing the development of conditions likely to be associated with pain and stress in farm animals.  Much of this research focuses on reducing lameness problems in broiler chickens, pigs and dairy cows through identifying optimum housing environments and treatment strategies, and through determining links with production traits in highly-selected species.  Research is also targeted at reducing harmful social behaviours such as tail biting in pigs through identifying both on-farm risk factors and associated production performance implications.