Working for a dustbath: are hens increasing pleasure rather than reducing suffering?

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Dustbathing is one of the major behavioural systems of domestic fowl that is constrained by commercial caging systems. Although research conducted over the last 20 years has revealed a great deal about causation of dustbathing, attempts at measuring the importance to hens of having access to dustbathing substrate have proven difficult. Various economic techniques, operant conditioning and learning trials have been used to determine whether hens have a ‘need’ for dustbathing substrate or ‘think’ about dustbathing in the absence of substrate. In this study, we measured hens' willingness to work to obtain substrate for dustbathing using a vertically swinging door to which weights could be added. Hens were trained to push through the door to enter a goal box containing peat moss. The hens were subjected to two series of trials to compare the maximum weight that they would push to open the door when living in a cage and deprived of dustbathing substrate, with the maximum weight that they would push when living in a pen furnished with litter and a dustbath (non-deprived). Of the 10 hens that opened the door for access to peat moss, six hens pushed more weight when deprived, three hens pushed more weight when non-deprived and one hen pushed an equal amount of weight. Overall, the hens tended to push more weight (860±95.6 vs. 682.5±83.3 g; P<0.10, one-tailed paired t-test) and tended to make more attempts to open the door (P<0.10) when they were deprived than when they were non-deprived. Significantly more trials resulted in dustbathing when hens were deprived (P<0.01) suggesting that following deprivation, the hens were, in fact, more motivated to dustbathe. The results of these trials indicate that although deprived hens may be more motivated to dustbathe, and that most hens may be willing to work to obtain a dusty substrate when they can see it, they are not necessarily willing to work harder when they are in a state of deprivation than when they have recently dustbathed. These results are very difficult to explain using a ‘needs’ model of motivation in which deprivation leads to a state of suffering. They are much more consistent with an ‘opportunity’ model of motivation in which performance of the behaviour, when the opportunity presents itself, leads to a state of pleasure.