Virtual reality could boost poultry health

26-08-2022 | |
Photo: Holger Schué
Photo: Holger Schué

Watching videos may boost hens’ health and welfare, according to researchers at Iowa State University in the US.

Scientists simulated a free-range environment in laying hen housing and found that showing hens virtual reality scenes of birds in more “natural” environments reduced indicators of stress in the hens’ blood and gut microbiota. The virtual reality scenes also induced biochemical changes related to increased resistance to E. coli bacteria.

“It is intriguing to think that even just showing hens free-range environments can stimulate similar immunological benefits.”

The pilot study, reported in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers of Science, involved the displaying of video projections of chickens in free-range environments. Scenes showed indoor facilities with access to an outdoor fenced scratch area and unfenced open prairie with grasses, shrubs and flowers.

The 5-day study of hens during peak stress period

A group of 34 hens from commercial poultry flocks were exposed to the videos over 5 days on all 4 walls of their housing. The videos were tested during a high-risk period for stress – 15 weeks after hatching when the hens were moving from pullet to egg-laying facilities.

The visual-only recordings showed diverse groups of free-range chickens performing a range of positive poultry behaviours, such as perching, dust-batching, preening and nesting. Videos were not shown to a control group of the same size and age in the same type of housing.

Beneficial effects

Results showed that chickens in the treatment group showed several beneficial changes compared to the control group. Differences included an increased resistance to avian pathogenic E. Coli bacteria that can cause sepsis and death in young birds.

Co-lead author Melha Mellata, associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, said: “There are many challenges associated with free-range production environments for laying hens, including potential for additional injuries, disease and risks from predators. However, hens in free-range environments do tend to engage more often in positive, normal behaviours that seem to enhance their overall health and immunity.”

Mellata added that it is intriguing to think that even just showing hens free-range environments can stimulate similar immunological benefits. “It could also be a relatively inexpensive way to reduce infections and the need for antibiotics in egg production,” Mellata said.

Future research focus

Future collaborative research is likely to investigate the neurochemical mechanisms linking the visual stimuli to changes in the chickens’ intestines.

The study can be found here.

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Tony Mcdougal Freelance Journalist
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