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The effect of perch access during pullet rearing and egg laying on physiological measures of stress in White Leghorns at 71 weeks of age

F.F. Yan, P.Y. Hester, H.W. Cheng
Poultry science 2014 v.93 no.6 pp. 1318-1326
White Leghorn, asymmetry, blood plasma, chicks, corticosterone, dopamine, epinephrine, exercise, hens, homeostasis, motivation, musculoskeletal system, norepinephrine, oviposition, perch, pullets, rearing, serotonin, skeletal development, stress response
Egg laying strains of chickens have a strong motivation to perch. Providing caged chickens with perches allows them to perform their natural perching behavior and also improves their musculoskeletal health due to exercise. Little is known about the effect of perch access for hens on physiological measures of stress. Our hypothesis was that denying chickens access to perches would elicit a stress response. The objective of this study was to determine the effect of perch access during all or part of life cycle on physiological homeostasis in caged 71-wk-old White Leghorn hens. A total of 1,064 chicks were assigned randomly to cages with and without perches (n = 14 pullet cages/perch treatment) on day of hatch. As pullets aged, chicks were removed from cages to provide more space. At 17 wk of age, 324 chickens in total were assigned to laying cages consisting of 4 treatments with 9 replicates per treatment. Treatment 1 chickens never had access to perches during their life cycle. Treatment 2 chickens had access to perches only from 17 to 71 wk of age (laying phase). Treatment 3 chickens had access to perches only from hatch to 16.9 wk of age (pullet phase). Treatment 4 chickens always had access to perches during their life cycle. At 71 wk of age, chickens were sampled for measurement of plasma catecholamines (epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine) and corticosterone; blood serotonin and Trp; fluctuating asymmetry of shank length and width; and adrenal weight. Only shank width differed among treatments. Chickens with previous exposure to perches during the pullet phase had wider shanks than chickens without access to perches (P = 0.006), suggesting that early perching promoted skeletal development. These results suggest that a stress response was not elicited in 71-wk-old White Leghorn hens that always had access to perches compared with hens that never had access to perches during all or part of their life cycle.