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Injury alters motivational trade-offs in calves during the healing period


Injury can produce long-lasting motivational changes that may alter decisions made under risk. Our objective was to determine whether a routine painful husbandry procedure, hot-iron disbudding, affects how calves trade off risk avoidance against a competing motivation (i.e., feeding), and whether this response depends on time since injury. We used a startle test to evaluate this trade-off in calves disbudded 0 or 21 days previously and non-injured control calves. For 3 days, calves were individually habituated to the testing arena in which they received a 0.5 L milk meal via a rubber teat. On the 4th day, upon approaching the milk reward, the calf was startled by a sudden noise. We assessed the duration and magnitude of the calf's startle response, their latency to return to the milk bottle, and duration spent suckling after startling. No treatment differences were observed in the duration and magnitude of the startle response or in the probability of returning to the bottle after startling. However, among those who did return, disbudded calves spent longer suckling, indicating they accepted more risk in order to feed compared to controls. In addition, calves with 21-day-old injuries tended to return to the bottle faster compared to newly disbudded calves and controls. We suggest that hot-iron disbudding increases calves' motivation to suckle, as they were more likely to prioritize this behaviour over risk avoidance compared to control calves. This effect was most evident 21 days after disbudding, indicating that injury can produce long-term changes in motivational state.

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