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Social relationships in domestic ruminants : constraints and means for the integration of the animal into its environment

INRA Prod. Anim., 14(2), 79-90.


1 INRA, Unité de Recherches sur les Herbivores, 63122 Saint-Genès-Champanelle

2 UMR INRA-CNRS-Université, Physiologie de la Reproduction et des Comportements, 37380 Nouzilly


Domestic ruminants belong to gregarious species. Their social organisation is characterised by stable dominance-subordination relationships which help to solve numerous conflicts in animal husbandry caused by the proximity of individuals. The social organisation is also characterised by preferential relationships which are responsible for the cohesion of the group. In ruminants, affinities include spatial proximity, reduced aggressiveness, enhanced positive interactions and tolerance in competitive situations. Preferential relationships are of economic importance as they reduce the unfavourable consequences of dominance relationships on subordinates. In addition, preferential relationships strongly help the animal to cope with the farmed environment since social partners influence individual reactivity to external events.

In the course of its life span, the animal develops a range of preferential relationships with several partners. During the postnatal period, the young herbivore takes actively part in the establishment of an exclusive relationship with its dam. Later, even if the bond with the dam remains strong, the young develops preferential relationships with other partners, particularly twins and siblings. A few months after birth, young are weaned by the farmers who separate them from the dam. Such abrupt weaning seems to increase temporarily the social motivation since the weaned animal strengthens bonds with peers as well as with humans in some cases. Changes in social bonds are also observed in adulthood : social attraction decreases in females around parturition which isolate themselves from the herd to give birth.

A better knowledge of the development of social bonds in domestic ruminants can help to define animal husbandry practices that take into account the social needs of animals. In addition, one might favour the development of preferential relationships during sensitive periods, and this could be used to alleviate problems due to social pressure and will no doubt be beneficial in terms of animal welfare.

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