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Welfare implications of nipple drinkers for broiler chickens

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Commercially reared broiler chickens are commonly supplied with drinking water through lines of nipple drinkers that are positioned above the birds' heads to avoid water leaking and spoiling the litter underfoot. This means that the birds have to peck upwards to obtain water, an action that is very different from the 'scoop' action of natural drinking seen when birds drink from troughs or puddles. In this study we investigate the welfare implications of this unnatural drinking behaviour imposed by nipple drinkers. We show 1) that chickens have no apparent aversion to the taste of tap water, 2) that they prefer bell drinkers and troughs over nipple drinkers, 3) that the stereotyped 'scoop' action is seen even when birds are drinking from bowls of different heights, 4) that chickens have a strong preference for drinking from nipples that are lower rather than higher and, 5) that when offered a choice between bowls and nipples of the same height, the chickens are indifferent to the method of water presentation. We conclude that the height at which water is presented to chickens is more important to them than whether they can drink with the natural 'scoop' action. While this might suggest that chicken welfare could be improved by lowering the drinker lines, wet litter causes welfare issues of its own through its effect on hock burn and pododermatitis. We suggest that drinker systems should be designed so that both aspects of welfare (birds able to drink in their preferred way and clean litter) are possible.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: February 1, 2008

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