Minimally-Invasive Assessments of the Behavioural and Physiological Effects of Enriched Colony Cages on Laying Hens


The well-being of laying hens in cages of 5, 10, 20 and 40-birds/cage, and enrichment with perches, nest boxes and scratch pads, was assessed using behavioral and physiological parameters. Laying hens were Lohmann Brown (n = 360) and White Leghorns (n = 360), housed from 17 to 65 weeks of age. Behavioral parameters were; the percentage of birds per cage roosting on perches, claw length (n = 288), and the percentage of eggs laid within nest boxes. Physiological parameters were; the assessment of feather cover from measurements of radiated temperatures by infrared thermography (IRT), bone mineral content of the humerus and femur by quantitative computer tomography (QCT) scans, and adrenocortical function as a marker of chronic stress by measurements of corticosterone concentrations in egg yolk and albumin.

The majority of eggs (72.7 %) in furnished cages were laid in nest boxes. Nest use was highest in Brown hens (P < 0.03). Perch use was >80 %, but significantly less in the 10-bird cages (P < 0.0012) due to a shorter perch length. Claws were shorter on birds in cages with scratch pads (P < 0.0001). Feather insulation declined from 35 to 60 weeks of age for breast and back areas (P < 0.0001). White birds exhibited superior breast feather insulation compared to Brown birds. Egg albumin corticosterone levels declined between 35 and 60 weeks of age (P < 0.011). There were no indications of an affect of colony size or cage enrichment on measurements of bone mineral content. The findings indicated a preference for the use of nest boxes, perches and scratch pads. Significant losses in feather insulation occur with time. A reduction in egg albumin corticosterone levels over time may be a marker of chronic stress in caged laying hens.

Keywords: Laying hens, colony cages, feather cover, infrared thermography, chronic stress, egg corticosterone, bone mineral content, behavior, welfare.