Allogrooming in cattle: Relationships between social preferences, feeding displacements and social dominance

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The aim of this study was to describe the allogrooming behaviour of group-housed lactating cows (Bos taurus) as it relates to social dominance, friendship, parity and level of feeding competition. We measured the socio-negative (displacements at the feeder and in the lying stalls) and socio-positive interactions (allogrooming and preferential spatial associations) in six groups of eight dairy cows. This experimental model has been shown to be useful in investigating the effects of high social pressure in groups of cattle. The level of social competition was manipulated by halving the access to the feeder. Allogrooming was observed mostly at the feeder after fresh feed delivery and during the night between 12 and 2 a.m. Dominance rank had no effect on the expression of allogrooming. When competition between animals increased, allogrooming declined, especially in low-ranking, primiparous animals. In addition to its role in coat hygiene and potential role in reducing tension between animals competing for feed, we conclude that allogrooming may be a behaviour reflecting friendship in cows, because it is correlated to preferential associations between partners at the feeder. We suggest that primiparous cows are more susceptible to suffer from a lack of hygiene or socio-positive relationships when submitted to high competitive pressure, especially when they are mixed with more experienced animals that could have better coping strategies in a high competition situation.