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News Article

Familiar Pictures Reduce Separation Anxiety in Sheep

A UK study shows that sheep placed in a stressful situation find the pictures of familiar sheep more comforting than other similar images.

A UK study shows that sheep placed in a stressful situation find the pictures of familiar sheep more comforting than other similar images.

"Sheep are much like us in that they recognise each other’s faces and use visual cues to judge emotional state from a facial expression," said Keith Kendrick, who led the study at the Cognitive and Behavioural Neuroscience Laboratory of Cambridge University. "They are very sensitive to social isolation and we wanted to see if looking at an 'attractive' sheep would reduce separation anxiety."

Kendrick and colleagues tested levels of the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, in more than 20 sheep, before separating each animal from the flock and leaving each individal for a period of 15-minutes in an isolated room with four large images of inverted triangles, representing a sheep's face. The images were then replaced with either four identical photographs of a life-sized sheep's face of the same breed, or images of a goat's face. The inverted triangles remained in the control group. Blood samples were obtained 30 minutes later.

Significant differences in heart rate and stress hormone levels were found at the end of each session, depending on the image shown to the sheep. The sheep that were shown inverted triangles remained stressed, with heart rates of 100 beats per minute and elevated adrenaline and cortisol blood levels. The sheep that were shown a goat face had very slightly reduced heart rate and blood hormone levels, whereas those shown a sheep face had heart rates of 80 beats per minute and normal blood hormone levels.

X-ray images of the temporal cortex of the sheep's brains, which is concerned with emotional response, and gene markers were used to highlight areas of high activity.

"The sheep that had been shown only the inverted triangle showed high activity in the regions relating to fear, anxiety and stress, but low activity in the areas dealing with face recognition and emotional control. But those shown a face had evidence of high activity in the regions relating to face recognition and emotional control and low activity in the stress and fear and anxiety regions," said Kendrick.

These findings, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences (DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2004.2831), point to a simple way of reducing separation anxiety in animals and humans. "It shows that if agricultural animals need to be isolated during transportation, showing them a familiar face could calm them. And children suffering separation anxiety could carry a photo of a loved one," he said.

Article details

  • Date
  • 31 August 2004
  • Subject(s)
  • Awaiting Classification (2)