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Chronic increase of dietary L-tryptophan decreases gentle feather pecking behaviour

Yvonne M. van Hierden, Jaap M. Koolhaas and S. Mechiel Korte

Revue : Applied Animal Behaviour Science

a, b, Jaap M. Koolhaas

b and S. Mechiel Korte

a a Animal Sciences Group of Wageningen UR, Division of Animal Resources Development, Research group Animal Welfare, P.O. Box 65, NL-8200, AB, Lelystad, The Netherlands

b Department of Animal Physiology, University of Groningen, P.O. Box 14, 9750 AA, Haren, The Netherlands

Accepted 5 May 2004. Available online 28 July 2004.

Many studies show the involvement of the serotonergic (5-HT) system in the performance of abnormal behaviour in both human and animals. Recently, we showed that acute reduction of 5-HT turnover in the forebrain, increased gentle and severe feather pecking behaviour in chicks from a high (HFP) and low feather pecking (LFP) line of laying hens, suggesting that the performance of feather pecking behaviour involves low 5-HT neurotransmission. In the present study, we postulated that if low 5-HT is causally underlying feather pecking, increasing 5-HT turnover in the forebrain will decrease the development and performance of feather pecking. Augmentation of 5-HT neurotransmission in the brain was induced by chronically increasing dietary levels of the essential amino acid L-tryptophan (TRP) from which 5-HT is synthesised. From the age of 34 days, LFP and HFP chicks were fed a diet containing 2% TRP, whereas control birds of both lines were continuously fed with the normal rearing feed (0.16% TRP). From 35 days of age, litter was removed from the pens (10 pens/line-treatment) and all chicks (10 chicks/pen) were housed on a slatted floor until the end of the experiment. At 49 days of age, feather pecking behaviour was studied for 30 min. At 50 days of age baseline corticosterone, TRP and other large amino acids (LNAAs) were measured in the blood plasma of decapitated chicks (10 chicks per line-treatment). Furthermore, plasma corticosterone and central 5-HT turnover levels in response to manual restraint (5 min) were determined (10 chicks/line-treatment). For neither gentle nor severe feather pecking a significant line × treatment interaction was found. However, TRP treatment resulted in a significant [P = 0.02] overall decrease of the frequency of gentle feather pecking. For severe feather pecking a similar but not significant pattern was found. Significant line effects were found for gentle and severe feather pecking. HFP birds showed significantly higher levels of gentle and severe feather pecking behaviour than LFP birds [P < 0.001]. TRP treatment significantly increased the TRP/LNAA ratio in the plasma of the chicks. Furthermore, TRP treatment overall increased baseline and stress-induced levels of plasma corticosterone (although more pronounced in the LFP line). TRP supplementation significantly increased 5-HT turnover in the hippocampus and archistriatum and tended to do so in the remainder of the forebrain. The results confirm our hypothesis that feather pecking behaviour is triggered by low serotonergic neurotransmission, as increasing serotonergic tone, by increasing dietary TRP, decreases gentle feather pecking behaviour.

Author Keywords: Chicken feather pecking; Serotonin; L-Tryptophan.

Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 89, Issues 1-2 , November 2004, Pages 71-84

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