Could virtual reality be the future of poultry health?

Researchers at Iowa State University are attempting to increase hens’ welfare and health through virtual reality (VR).

In recent years, VR technology has found its way into every part of life. From video games to job training, VR attempts to give users an experience as close to reality as possible. Though to many, this advancement in technology may sound dystopian, researchers across the country are finding ways it can improve our daily lives.

Melha Mellata, associate professor, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Iowa State University, and Graham Redweik, a recent doctoral student in the Interdepartmental Microbiology Graduate Program at Iowa State, are seeing if VR can be used in yet another unconventional way, this time for the birds.

The Iowa State researchers recognized that the increasing demand for cage-free eggs arises from the goal to provide hens with better welfare, particularly in terms of natural behavior. But because the cage-free systems can present challenges, such as injuries and bacterial infections, most laying hens are kept in conventional cages. Mellata saw VR technology, as a way to simulate a free-range environment in laying hen housing.

“There are many challenges associated with free-range production environments for laying hens, including potential for additional injuries, disease and risks from predators,” Mellata said. “However, hens in free-range environments do tend to engage more often in positive, ‘normal’ behaviors that seem to enhance their overall health and immunity.”

The study, “Exposure to a Virtual Environment Induces Biological and Microbiota Changes in Onset-of-Lay Hens,” published in the peer-reviewed journal frontiers of science, found that showing hens VR scenes of chickens in more natural environments reduced indicators of stress in the hens’ blood and gut microbiota. “It’s intriguing to think that even just showing hens free-range environments can stimulate similar immunological benefits,” Mellate said.

Chickens are highly receptive to visual stimuli. Like their T-rex ancestors, chickens have poor depth perception and recognize objects better when they are moving than stationary. According to the study, this means that environmental factors, such as color, light quality, duration and intensity all affect the feeding behaviors of poultry.

For example, when looking at a video of chicks feeding, the birds will imitate these behaviors and approach their feed more quickly.

The study found that the VR scenes induced biochemical changes related to increased resistance to E. coli bacteria, which poses health risks to poultry and to humans who eat contaminated eggs.

Researchers displayed video projections of chickens in free-range environments. Scenes showed indoor facilities with access to an outdoor fenced scratch area and unfenced open prairie with grasses, shrubs and flowers. A group of 34 hens from commercial poultry flocks was exposed to the videos over five days on all four walls of their housing. The videos were tested during a high-risk period for stress — 15 weeks after hatching, a stage when commercial hens are regularly moved to egg-laying facilities.

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

The researchers analyzed blood, tissues and samples of their intestinal microbiota. Chickens in the treatment group showed several beneficial changes compared to the control group. The differences included lower indicators of stress and increased resistance to Avian Pathogenic E. coli bacteria that can cause sepsis and death in young birds.

“We need more research, but this suggests virtual reality could be a relatively simple tool to improve poultry health in confined environments and improve food safety,” Mellata 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 time, with more chickens and chickens 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 the visual stimuli to changes in the chickens’ intestines,” Mellata said.

The full study can be viewed here.

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