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In PeerJ

Background : Animals kept in barren environments often show increased levels of inactivity and first studies indicate that inactive behaviour may reflect boredom or depression-like states. However, to date, knowledge of what inactivity looks like in different species is scarce and methods to precisely describe and analyse inactive behaviour are thus warranted.

Methods : We developed an Inactivity Ethogram including detailed information on the postures of different body parts (Standing/Lying, Head, Ears, Eyes, Tail) for fattening cattle, a farm animal category often kept in barren environments. The Inactivity Ethogram was applied to Austrian Fleckvieh heifers kept in intensive, semi-intensive and pasture-based husbandry systems to record inactive behaviour in a range of different contexts. Three farms per husbandry system were visited twice; once in the morning and once in the afternoon to cover most of the daylight hours. During each visit, 16 focal animals were continuously observed for 15 minutes each (96 heifers per husbandry system, 288 in total). Moreover, the focal animals' groups were video recorded to later determine inactivity on the group level. Since our study was explorative in nature, we refrained from statistical hypothesis testing, but analysed both the individual- and group-level data descriptively. Moreover, simultaneous occurrences of postures of different body parts (Standing/Lying, Head, Ears and Eyes) were analysed using the machine learning algorithm cspade to provide insight into co-occurring postures of inactivity.

Results : Inspection of graphs indicated that with increasing intensity of the husbandry system, more animals were inactive (group-level data) and the time the focal animals were inactive increased (individual-level data). Frequently co-occurring postures were generally similar between husbandry systems, but with subtle differences. The most frequently observed combination on farms with intensive and semi-intensive systems was lying with head up, ears backwards and eyes open whereas on pasture it was standing with head up, ears forwards and eyes open.

Conclusion : Our study is the first to explore inactive behaviour in cattle by applying a detailed description of postures from an Inactivity Ethogram and by using the machine learning algorithm cspade to identify frequently co-occurring posture combinations. Both the ethogram created in this study and the cspade algorithm may be valuable tools in future studies aiming to better understand different forms of inactivity and how they are associated with different affective states.

Hintze Sara, Maulbetsch Freija, Asher Lucy, Winckler Christoph


Animal welfare, Cattle, Co-occurring postures, Cspade, Inactive behaviour, Inactivity ethogram, Machine learning algorithm