Animal Behavior and Handling

Animal behavior and handling are critical aspects of animal husbandry that impact the well-being, productivity, and safety of both animals and their handlers. Understanding animal behavior and employing appropriate handling techniques can greatly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of livestock management, while also promoting animal welfare and reducing stress.

Principles of Animal Behavior

Animal behavior is influenced by a complex interplay of genetic, environmental, and experiential factors. Understanding the fundamental principles of animal behavior is essential for developing effective handling strategies and optimizing animal management.

Innate Behavior

Innate behaviors are instinctive and genetically programmed responses that are exhibited by all members of a species.


  • Automatic, involuntary responses to specific stimuli

Examples include the suckling reflex in newborns and the startle response to sudden noises

Fixed Action Patterns

  • Complex, stereotyped behaviors that are triggered by specific stimuli

Examples include courtship displays, nest building, and migration patterns

Organizational Effects

  • The influence of hormones and other physiological factors on the development of innate behaviors

Example: the role of testosterone in the development of aggressive behavior in males

Learned Behavior

Learned behaviors are acquired through experience and can be modified or adapted based on the consequences of the behavior.


  • The gradual reduction in response to a repeated stimulus that is not associated with any positive or negative consequences

Example: animals becoming accustomed to the presence of humans or novel objects

Classical Conditioning

  • The association of a neutral stimulus with a biologically significant stimulus leads to a learned response

Example: animals learning to associate the sound of a feed truck with the arrival of food

Operant Conditioning

  • The modification of behavior through the consequences (reinforcement or punishment) that follow the behavior

Example: training animals to perform specific tasks or behaviors using positive reinforcement

Social Learning

  • The acquisition of new behaviors through the observation and imitation of others

Examples include the transmission of foraging techniques or avoidance of predators within a social group

Motivation and Emotion

Motivation and emotion are internal states that drive animal behavior and influence their responses to external stimuli.


  • The maintenance of a stable internal environment through physiological and behavioral adaptations

Example: animals seeking shade or water to regulate body temperature

Appetitive and Consummatory Behaviors

  • Appetitive behaviors are goal-directed activities that bring an animal closer to a desired stimulus or resource
  • Consummatory behaviors are the final actions that result in the attainment of the goal

Example: a cow searching for a water trough (appetitive) and drinking from it (consummatory)

Affective States

  • Emotional experiences that can be positive (e.g., pleasure, contentment) or negative (e.g., fear, frustration)
  • Affective states can influence an animal's motivation, learning, and behavioral responses

Stress and Animal Welfare

Stress is a physiological and behavioral response to challenges or threats in an animal's environment. Chronic or excessive stress can have detrimental effects on animal health, welfare, and productivity.

Sources of Stress

  • Physical stressors: extreme temperatures, noise, restraint, or handling
  • Physiological stressors: hunger, thirst, disease, or injury
  • Psychological stressors: fear, isolation, or social conflict

Stress Response

The stress response involves the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system.

HPA Axis

  • The hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which stimulates the pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)
  • ACTH stimulates the adrenal glands to release glucocorticoids (e.g., cortisol), which mobilize energy reserves and modulate immune function

Sympathetic Nervous System

  • The sympathetic nervous system releases catecholamines (e.g., epinephrine and norepinephrine), which increase heart rate, blood pressure, and glucose availability
  • These responses prepare the animal for the "fight or flight" response

Consequences of Chronic Stress

  • Suppression of the immune system, leading to increased susceptibility to disease
  • Reduced growth, reproduction, and milk production
  • Abnormal behaviors, such as stereotypies (repetitive, non-functional behaviors) or aggression
  • Decreased animal welfare and increased risk of injury or mortality

Assessing Animal Welfare

Animal welfare can be assessed using a combination of physiological, behavioral, and health measures.

Physiological Measures

  • Cortisol levels in blood, saliva, or feces as an indicator of HPA axis activation
  • Heart rate and heart rate variability as measures of sympathetic nervous system activity
  • Immune function parameters, such as antibody titers or white blood cell counts

Behavioral Measures

  • Time budgets and activity patterns
  • Presence or absence of species-specific behaviors (e.g., grazing, grooming, or play)
  • Abnormal behaviors, such as stereotypies or aggression

Health Measures

  • Body condition score and growth rate
  • Incidence of disease, injury, or mortality
  • Reproductive performance (e.g., conception rate, litter size)

Low-Stress Handling Techniques

Low-stress handling techniques are designed to minimize fear and anxiety in animals during routine management procedures, such as moving, sorting, or restraining. These techniques are based on an understanding of animal behavior and communication, and they prioritize the safety and well-being of both animals and handlers.

Principles of Low-Stress Handling

  • Understand and work with the animal's natural behavior and instincts
  • Use calm, deliberate movements and avoid sudden actions or loud noises
  • Maintain a positive attitude and avoid displaying frustration or aggression
  • Provide clear, consistent cues and rewards for desired behaviors

Flight Zone and Point of Balance

The flight zone is the personal space around an animal that, when entered by a handler, will cause the animal to move away. The point of balance is the point at the animal's shoulder where they will move forward or backward depending on the handler's position.

  • Handlers should work at the edge of the flight zone to encourage animals to move calmly
  • Moving in front of the point of balance will cause the animal to stop or back up while moving behind it will cause the animal to move forward

Pressure and Release

Pressure and release is a technique that uses the application and removal of pressure (through body position, movement, or visual cues) to guide animal movement.

  • Applying pressure will cause the animal to move away from the handler
  • Releasing pressure (by stepping back or looking away) rewards the animal for the desired movement and helps to build trust

Handling Facilities and Equipment

Well-designed handling facilities and equipment can greatly reduce stress and improve the efficiency of animal handling.

Facility Design

  • Use curved or circular designs that take advantage of the animal's natural tendency to circle back towards the herd
  • Provide solid sides on chutes and alleys to prevent distractions and reduce fear
  • Ensure non-slip flooring and avoid sharp turns or sudden changes in lighting or footing

Equipment Selection

  • Use equipment that is appropriate for the size and species of animal being handled
  • Avoid using electric prods or other aversive stimuli whenever possible
  • Regularly maintain and repair equipment to ensure proper function and safety

Training and Acclimation

Training and acclimation can help animals become more comfortable with handling procedures and reduce stress during future interactions.

  • Start training early in life, using positive reinforcement techniques
  • Gradually expose animals to new experiences, such as handling, restraint, or transportation
  • Provide opportunities for positive interactions with handlers, such as grooming or treat feeding

Behavior-Based Management Practices

Behavior-based management practices are designed to work with the natural behavior and needs of animals to promote health, welfare, and productivity. These practices can reduce stress, improve animal comfort, and enhance the overall efficiency of livestock operations.

Environmental Enrichment

Environmental enrichment involves providing animals with stimuli or resources that encourage the expression of natural behaviors and promote psychological well-being.

Types of Enrichment

  • Physical enrichment: objects or substrates that encourage exploration, play, or exercise (e.g., balls, brushes, or perches)
  • Sensory enrichment: stimuli that engage the animal's senses, such as visual, auditory, or olfactory cues
  • Nutritional enrichment: foraging or feeding activities that mimic natural food acquisition behaviors
  • Social enrichment: opportunities for social interaction, grooming, or play with conspecifics

Benefits of Enrichment

  • Reduces the incidence of abnormal behaviors, such as stereotypies or aggression
  • Promotes the expression of species-specific behaviors and cognitive function
  • Enhances animal welfare and adaptability to stress or change

Positive Reinforcement Training

Positive reinforcement training involves rewarding desired behaviors to increase their frequency and establish a positive human-animal relationship.

Principles of Positive Reinforcement

  • Clearly define the desired behavior and establish a consistent cue or signal
  • Provide an immediate reward (e.g., food treat, verbal praise, or tactile stimulation) when the animal performs the desired behavior
  • Gradually shape more complex behaviors by rewarding successive approximations of the final goal

Applications in Livestock Management

  • Training animals to voluntarily enter or exit handling facilities
  • Desensitizing animals to routine procedures, such as hoof trimming or veterinary examinations
  • Teaching animals to cooperate with milking or weighing processes

Pasture and Grazing Management

Pasture and grazing management practices that take into account animal behavior and preferences can improve animal welfare, nutrition, and environmental sustainability.

Rotational Grazing

  • Dividing pastures into smaller paddocks and rotating animals through them based on forage growth and quality
  • Allows for more uniform grazing and recovery of vegetation, while providing animals with access to fresh, nutrient-rich forage

Herbage Allowance

  • Adjusting stocking rates and grazing durations to ensure adequate herbage allowance (the amount of forage available per animal)
  • Ensures that animals have access to sufficient food resources and reduces competition or stress

Grazing Behavior Monitoring

  • Using technology, such as GPS collars or drones, to monitor grazing behavior and patterns
  • Identifies areas of over- or under-utilization and informs management decisions to optimize pasture use and animal performance


Understanding animal behavior and implementing effective handling and management practices are critical for promoting animal welfare, productivity, and the sustainability of livestock operations. By applying the principles of low-stress handling, behavior-based management, and environmental enrichment, livestock producers can create an environment that supports the natural behavior and well-being of their animals.

Effective animal handling and management require a combination of knowledge, skill, and empathy. Animal handlers should be trained in the principles of animal behavior and welfare, and they should be provided with the tools and facilities necessary to implement best practices. Ongoing research and education in the field of animal behavior and handling will continue to advance our understanding and ability to provide the best possible care for the animals under our stewardship.

Ultimately, prioritizing animal behavior and welfare in livestock production systems not only benefits the animals themselves but also enhances the efficiency, profitability, and social acceptability of these systems. By working with, rather than against, the natural behavior and needs of animals, we can create a more sustainable and ethically sound future for animal agriculture.