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Overview of the behavior of backyard livestock (Proceedings)
Backyard livestock are becoming more popular with 'urban farmers' and those who want a 'different' pet.
Backyard livestock are becoming more popular with ‘urban farmers' and those who want a ‘different' pet. They range from those kept only as pets, to those that are utilized, at least in part, for some commodity, whether it be milk or eggs. While there are certainly many similarities in their biology to other animals, there are certain differences that need to be understood.
It is imperative that the owner seek out whether they can keep their pet legally at their location. Some cities have strict rules regarding what animals are considered ‘pets'. However, in the past few years, some municipalities have changed the rules to become more lenient. For example, the Backyard Chicken movement has taken off, especially as people seek to be closer to their food sources.
Owners are often not fully aware of the medical care necessary for proper care of these animals, nor are veterinarians. Information on vaccination protocols, nutritional needs, and common husbandry procedures should be coming from the veterinarian, not the feed store. Husbandry and management issues in livestock, just like in most other types of animals, are at the root of a lot of common medical and behavioral problems.
However, as these animals are used for food, we have to be aware of what the withdrawal times are for prescribed medications. We also have to be aware whether or not the medication is even allowed in a production animal. Even if the animal is 100% a pet, you are legally obligated to give the owner this information, and make sure your documentation is legally correct.
Common veterinary procedures, namely castration, dehorning/disbudding, and tail banding, cause pain. Historically pain control in livestock has been lacking, and veterinarians are still slow to adopt proper measures to control pain in livestock. It is imperative for us to alleviate pain in all animals, regardless of their use. Disbudding is considered less painful than dehorning, as it removes the tissue forming the horns before the horn becomes bony and attached to the skull. Even so, pain control is necessary.
Each species has its specific dietary requirements. For ruminants and swine, fiber is an important aspect of their diet. In production systems, carbohydrates play a bigger role in their diets due to animals gaining weight quicker with the higher calorically dense diets. They walk a fine line between providing enough fiber to allow for proper rumination and enrichment, while getting the animal to market quicker or producing greater amounts of milk.
Feed is often offered in pelleted form. While providing enough fiber to be biologically correct, they consume this feed relatively quickly. Aside from being more appropriate, long-stemmed hay and straw provides the animal opportunity to perform species-typical behaviors, such as grazing and rooting. If and when an owner is unable to feed long-stem grasses, they can offer the diet in enrichment objects that allow them to spend more time consuming food.
This is usually not a problem in production animals, as producers balance cost of the feed with the output. However, obesity is a very common problem in backyard livestock, as it is in companion animals. “Backyard livestock” are the same breeds that are used in production, and for years, animal scientists have bred these animals to be very efficient in feed conversion. Vietnamese Potbellied Pigs, and other similar breeds, were historically (and continue to be) bred for meat in other countries, and are very prone to preferably put on fat vs. muscle. Additionally, bags of feed do not come with feeding suggestions, as is found on bags of dog and cat food. Owners often supplement with grain and other treats, which quickly can lead to weight gain in these animals. However, utilizing SMALL bits of treats for training and other enrichment is appropriate if done correctly.
Social: Between animals
These behaviors differ between species, but some general rule apply. Introducing new animals to groups of animals can be challenging. Assure that there is adequate space for each animal, as well as enough feeder and waterer space. An enriched environment, such as when provided with long-stem hay and straw in ample space, allows animals to spend their time rooting, browsing, and/or grazing, and not in agonistic interactions.
Pigs are unique in that they are very physical in their interactions with other animals, likely due to the fact that they display little in the way of body language and facial expressions. This behavior is more likely to be seen when animals are first introduced to each other.
Goats and sheep that retain their horns can inflict damage to other animals, as well as people. Those animals with horns will be higher in the social rank than those that are dehorned.
Social: Toward people
Small ruminants are prey species, and are more likely to escape than fight back, unless they have no other choice. Utilizing low-stress handling methods is essential, regardless of what you need to do, and regardless of the species. This is starting to filter into the production end of veterinary medicine. Physiological and behavioral parameters, including weight gain, feed conversion, and milk production, point to it being beneficial.
Aggression or other agonistic interactions from animals to people are complaints that owners have. It usually is due to the underlying motivation of fear. Some animals are territorial, which can be a problem when a person enters into its pen to clean it. They can also display maternal aggression if they have an offspring with them that they are guarding.
Even though most aggression has at least some basis in fear, these animals can still be dangerous. Small ruminants can butt and, if they still have horns, can cause significant injury to a person. Swine will bite, often as their first line of defense.
Domestic Animal Behavior for Veterinarians and Scientists, Fifth Edition. Katherine Houpt, 2010. Wiley-Blackwell. This is THE go-to book for all normal and problem behaviors of livestock.