Getting (a digital) read on how animals are feeling

Sophisticated camera technology can pick up subtle signs of cows in heat, and may one day be able to ‘read’ emotions

In some of her preliminary research in New Zealand, scientist Mirjam Guesgen put small blue dots on lambs’ faces as part of her measurements of their facial expression.
Reading Time: 2 minutes

What do “The Lord of the Rings” movies and a study on animal expressions have in common?

Both used motion capture technology — albeit for very different reasons.

“Generally, we found that we could detect when the cows were in heat by using motion capture,” said Mirjam Guesgen, who recently completed her post-doc studies at the University of Alberta.

“We found that they were more restless, but to a level that you couldn’t see with the naked eye.”

Motion capture — used to create characters such as Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” movies and also to analyze baseball — is precise enough to measure micro-movements in the legs and backs of cattle.

Because dairy cows are kept indoors much of the time in Canada, it’s harder to read their behaviour compared to ones on open pasture in warmer climates, said Guesgen, and that prompted her study using a motion capture camera to track subtle differences. The camera found them, even though the cattle were kept in tie-stalls and didn’t move around a lot more when they came into heat.

“We found that they were doing the shifting side to side, shifting their weight from leg to leg, and that transferred into the motion capture video,” said Guesgen, who worked with Clover Bench, an animal ethologist and professor in the faculty of agriculture, life and environmental sciences.

Her research, still in the process of being peer reviewed, is unique.

“As far as I know, no one in Canada has used that particular system for animal research,” said Guesgen, an animal welfare specialist who has since relocated to Toronto.

“Now, that opens the door for a whole lot of other research down the road.”

There are many possibilities, including cataloguing facial expressions, said Guesgen who worked on creating a grimace ‘score’ for lambs in her native New Zealand.

This lamb isn’t in pain but started to vocalize — possibly to maintain contact with its flock mates in a nearby pen — after being picked up. photo: Mirjam Guesgen

So far, the only scales created for non-human animals involve mapping their pain, but “there’s increasing evidence that animals can experience a whole range of emotions, both negative, like pain or stress, or positive, like joy or curiosity.”

Scientists need to figure out a way to test for these emotions, and determine how animals express them, she said.

However, people who are familiar with animals can read their facial expression and body language naturally, she added. In her earlier research in New Zealand, many farmers asked Guesgen why she would bother monitoring grimaces or facial expressions, when they could just tell that their animal was in pain.

While some scientists are still skeptical that animals can feel pain, being able to show facial expressions to people who work with livestock can make them more aware of when they are in distress, she said.

About the author


Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."



Stories from our other publications