Virtual reality may improve the health of poultry, Iowa State University researchers say

Ames, Iowa — Watching videos can improve the welfare and health of hens, according to Iowa State University researchers.

Using virtual reality technology, scientists simulated a free-range environment for laying hens. They found that showing VR scenes of hens with chicks in a more “natural” environment reduced indicators of stress in the hens’ blood and gut microbiota. The VR scenes also induced biochemical changes associated with increased resistance to E. coli bacteria, posing a health risk to poultry and humans who eat contaminated eggs.

The pilot study, reported in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers of Science, was led by Melha Mellata, associate professor, Department of Food Sciences and Human Nutrition, and Graham Redweik, a recent postdoctoral fellow in the Interagency Microbiology Program at Iowa State who is now at the University of Colorado – Boulder. Iowa State’s multidisciplinary collaborative project team also included James Oliver, director, Center for Virtual Reality Applications; Suzanne Millman, Professor, Department of Veterinary Diagnostics and Production Animal Medicine; and Mark Light, professor, Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Preventive Medicine.

To conduct the study, the researchers showed video projections to chickens in a free environment. The scenes show indoor facilities with access to an outdoor fenced scratch area and an unfenced open prairie with grasses, shrubs and flowers. A group of 34 hens from commercial poultry flocks were exposed to videotapes for five days on the four walls of their housing. The videos were tested during a period of high risk of stress – 15 weeks after hatching, a stage when commercial laying hens are regularly moved from chicks to egg-laying rooms.

Visual recordings alone showed different groups of free-range chickens performing activities associated with positive poultry behaviors based on the time of day, such as preening, roosting, dust-bathing and nesting. The videos were not shown to a control group of the same size and age in the same housing type.

After the treatment period, the researchers analyzed blood and tissues from the chickens, as well as samples of their gut microbiota. Chickens in the treatment group showed several beneficial changes compared to the control group. Differences include lower stress scores and increased resistance to avian pathogenic E. coli bacteria, which can cause sepsis and death in young birds.

“There are many challenges associated with a free-range environment for laying hens, including the potential for additional injury, disease and predator risks. However, hens in a free-range environment tend to engage more frequently in positive, ‘normal’ behaviors, which appear to improve their overall health and immunity,” Melata said. “It is intriguing to think that even just exposing hens to a free-range environment could stimulate such immunological benefits.”

The idea for the study came about when Mellata attended a workshop on new uses of virtual reality in various fields, presented by Oliver, with the Center for Virtual Reality Applications.

“We need more research, but this suggests that virtual reality could be a relatively simple tool to improve the health of poultry in confined environments and to improve food safety,” Melata said. “It could also be a relatively inexpensive way to reduce infections and the need for antibiotics in egg production.”

The team hopes to expand the research to conduct a similar study over a longer period of time, with more chicks and chicks at different stages, to see if the results can be replicated.

“Future research in collaboration with our partners in veterinary medicine is also needed to investigate the neurochemical mechanisms linking visual stimuli to gut changes in chicks,” Melata said.

Support for this research came from Iowa State University’s Presidential Interdisciplinary Research Grant.

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