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Too hungry to learn? Hungry broiler breeders fail to learn a Y-maze food quantity discrimination task

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Choice tests may aid determining whether qualitative dietary restriction improves the welfare of feed-restricted broiler breeder chickens (Gallus gallus domesticus). However, hunger-stress may reduce competency to choose by impairing learning. The effect of chronic feed restriction on the ability of broiler breeders to learn a hunger-relevant discrimination task was investigated using a Y-maze paradigm. The task was to associate black and white arms with large and small quantities of feed. Birds were reared to three growth curves by means of severe (n = 12), moderate (n = 12) or very mild feed restriction (n = 12). Learning the task and selecting the larger food option allowed birds to increase their feed intake. Time taken to traverse the Y-maze was also measured. Birds from all treatment groups traversed the Y-maze more quickly over time, indicating that they had learnt that running down the Y-maze arms was associated with a rewarding outcome (food). However, feed restriction significantly reduced their ability to associate the black and white cues with differences in food quantity. Consequently, average pay-offs in terms of daily feed increments disproportionately accrued to the less feed-restricted treatment groups. It is concluded that feed restriction affected the performance of broiler breeders in this task, perhaps by narrowing their attention such that they ignore potentially hunger-relevant contextual cues. However, low overall group success rates demonstrate that this task was difficult to learn even for less severely feed-restricted birds. Therefore, Y-maze choice tests may not be the most appropriate method for determining hungry broiler breeder dietary preferences.
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Keywords: ANIMAL WELFARE; BROILER BREEDERS; CHOICE TEST; FEED RESTRICTION; LEARNING; STRESS

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2011-11-01

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