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Stressed out no more

By Heidi Jeter

foundation studies address major factors in animal welfare

When most people think about Morris Animal Foundation, they only consider the health studies we fund to combat disease and illness. Yet, the Foundation is equally committed to advancing animal welfare. That means addressing animals’ physical and psychological needs.

Our commitment dates back to our very founding in 1948, and Morris Animal Foundation today remains one of the few organizations that funds research into animal behavior, stress, environmental factors and pain management—all of which affect an animal’s overall well-being.

"I am amazed by how visionary our founder, Dr. Mark Morris Sr., was," says Paul Raybould, executive vice president of the Foundation. "Not only did he see the need for a health foundation for animals during a time when pets rarely received any veterinary care, but he also recognized that an animal’s psychological welfare is linked to its physical health."

how stress affects well-being

Most of us have been inundated in recent years with news about how stress diminishes our overall health—so it should come as no surprise that stress also affects animals.

"It is well established in humans and livestock that there is a direct link between chronic stress and a variety of health problems," says Dr. Janine Brown, chair of the Foundation’s Wildlife Scientific Advisory Board and a reproductive physiologist at the Smithsonian Institution. "It is extremely important to determine what factors in an animal’s environment impact its welfare and to identify best management practices to ensure animal well-being."

This is why Morris Animal Foundation has been leading the way in addressing chronic stress in both pets and wildlife.

For many companion animals, the most stressful situation they may find themselves in is living in a shelter. Many shelters have launched behavioral enrichment programs designed to enhance the welfare of dogs in shelters and help prevent behavioral problems that inhibit successful adoptions. But do the programs work?

With Foundation funding, Dr. Janet Scarlett at Cornell University evaluated four enrichment programs and learned that human interaction may reduce the physiological stress response in dogs during their first 8 to 11 days in an animal shelter. She also found that dogs that underwent neutering while in the shelter had significantly higher cortisol concentrations (a measure of stress) three days after surgery than those who had already been neutered. These results indicate the importance of using stress-reducing measures, such as pain management, for at least three days after surgery.

In addition, Dr. Scarlett says, "several adopters noted that whatever had been done to enrich their dogs’ lives while in the shelter seemed to work in the adoptive homes."

Morris Animal Foundation is also addressing the welfare of cats in shelters. Studies through our Helping Shelters Help Cats initiative indicate that environmental factors, such as cage design and handling, may increase or decrease a cat’s stress level in a shelter and play a significant role in managing disease. Read more on page 4.

Another new feline study takes a unique look at how a cat’s environment affects the immune system. Dr. Megan M. Mahoney at the University of Illinois is analyzing how disruptions in an animal’s internal rhythms, such as being in the constant light of an intensive care setting, may negatively alter a cat’s immune, endocrine and metabolic systems. What she learns could speed recovery for sick animals.

reducing stress in captivity

Environmental factors also affect overall health for captive wild animals. Dr. Brown notes that stressors such as poor nutrition; inadequate housing, husbandry or social situations; and physical discomfort can increase morbidity and mortality by suppressing immune function. Reproduction is also frequently compromised in animals experiencing poor welfare and stress.

A recent Foundation-funded study by Dr. Paul Anderson at the University of Florida showed that seahorses exposed to long-term noise—like the ambient noise in aquariums—develop distress behaviors and show weight loss, poor physical condition and stress-related changes in their white blood cell counts. Based on these findings, researchers developed soundproofing modifications that can be made in public and home aquariums to provide a better sensory environment for captive fish.

In a study at the University of California–Davis, the late Dr. Linda Munson compared the immune response in cheetahs with Helicobacter gastritis to that of cheetahs without gastritis. She found that the inflammatory reaction in cheetahs with gastritis suggests that cortisol may suppress the cheetah’s normal immune responses. Decreasing corticoid concentrations can help improve the medical management of cheetahs.

Current Foundation-funded studies are assessing how stress affects the recovery of traumatically injured great horned owls admitted to rehabilitation centers and are analyzing how housing factors and use of drugs to decrease stress responses in captive animals may inhibit reproduction.

Regardless of whether an animal is in a home, a shelter, a zoo or the wild, the evidence is resounding that stress affects health and welfare. Dr. Brown sees Morris Animal Foundation as uniquely positioned to fund the research needed to assess environmental and husbandry conditions that affect an animal’s overall well-being.

"Only by carefully gathering the necessary scientific evidence can we identify factors associated with physical pain and psychological suffering and take concrete steps to improve the welfare of animals in human care and in the wild," says Dr. Brown.