Benefits of a ball and chain: simple environmental enrichments improve welfare and reproductive success in farmed American mink (Neovison vison)

Meagher, R K and Dallaire, J A and Campbell, D L M and Ross, M and Moller, S H and Hansen, S W and Diez-Leon, M and Palme, R and Mason, G (2014) Benefits of a ball and chain: simple environmental enrichments improve welfare and reproductive success in farmed American mink (Neovison vison). PLoS One, 9 (11). e110589.

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Abstract

Can simple enrichments enhance caged mink welfare? Pilot data from 756 sub-adults spanning three colour-types (strains) identified potentially practical enrichments, and suggested beneficial effects on temperament and fur-chewing. Our main experiment started with 2032 Black mink on three farms: from each of 508 families, one juvenile male-female pair was enriched (E) with two balls and a hanging plastic chain or length of hose, while a second pair was left as a non-enriched (NE) control. At 8 months, more than half the subjects were killed for pelts, and 302 new females were recruited (half enriched: ‘late E’). Several signs of improved welfare or productivity emerged. Access to enrichment increased play in juveniles. E mink were calmer (less aggressive in temperament tests; quieter when handled; less fearful, if male), and less likely to fur-chew, although other stereotypic behaviours were not reduced. On one farm, E females had lower cortisol (inferred from faecal metabolites). E males tended to copulate for longer. E females also weaned more offspring: about 10% more juveniles per E female, primarily caused by reduced rates of barrenness (‘late E’ females also giving birth to bigger litters on one farm), effects that our data cautiously suggest were partly mediated by reduced inactivity and changes in temperament. Pelt quality seemed unaffected, but E animals had cleaner cages. In a subsidiary side-study using 368 mink of a second colour-type (‘Demis’), similar temperament effects emerged, and while E did not reduce fur-chewing or improve reproductive success in this colour-type, E animals were judged to have better pelts. Overall, simple enrichments were thus beneficial. These findings should encourage welfare improvements on fur farms (which house 60-70 million mink p.a.) and in breeding centres where endangered mustelids (e.g. black-footed ferrets) often reproduce poorly. They should also stimulate future research into more effective practical enrichments.

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