Virtual reality could improve poultry health, researchers at Iowa State University say

AMES, Iowa – Watching videos can promote chicken welfare and health, according to researchers at Iowa State University.

Using virtual reality technology, the scientists simulated free-range husbandry in a laying hen house. They found that showing VR scenes of chickens in more “natural” environments reduced stress indicators in the chickens’ blood and gut microbiota. The VR scenes also induced biochemical changes associated with increased resistance to E. coli bacteria, which pose a health risk to poultry and humans eating contaminated eggs.

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

To conduct the study, the researchers showed video projections of chickens in outdoor settings. The scenes featured indoor facilities with access to a fenced outdoor scratching area and an unfenced open prairie with grasses, shrubs and flowers. A group of 34 hens from commercial poultry flocks were exposed to the videos on all four walls of their coop for five days. The videos were tested during a high-risk stress period – 15 weeks post-hatch, a period when commercial laying hens are regularly moved from pullet to oviposition.

The purely visual recordings showed different groups of free-range chickens performing activities related to positive poultry behaviors, such as feeding, depending on the time of day. B. Preening, crouching, dust bathing and nesting. Videos were not shown to a control group of the same size and age in the same living arrangement.

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

“There are many challenges associated with free range environments for laying hens, including the potential for additional injury, disease and risk from predators. However, free-range chickens tend to exhibit more positive, “normal” behaviors that appear to improve their overall health and immunity,” Mellata said. “It’s intriguing to think that even the mere display of free-range chickens can stimulate similar immunological benefits.”

The idea for the study came about when Mellata attended a seminar on new virtual reality applications in different fields, presented by Oliver with the Virtual Reality Applications Center.

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

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

“Future research in collaboration with our veterinary partners is also needed to investigate the neurochemical mechanisms that link the visual stimuli to changes in the chicken gut,” said Mellata.

Support for this research came from an Interdisciplinary Research Grant from the President of Iowa State University.

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