• Scientists are putting virtual reality gear on mice to study their cognition.
  • Animals ranging from cows to chickens have gotten VR gear for research purposes. 
  • Some scientists say VR could make farm animals happier and more productive.

Someone using a tablet and VR to take care of farm animals.

It's not just humans that use virtual reality (VR) gear. 

Chinese scientists have invented a VR platform for mice, according to a new study. The six-screened setup with virtual environments is intended to study how rodents think. The study is the latest in a growing body of research to see if using VR with animals can uncover their secrets and even help them lead happier lives. 

“VR can help reduce stress on livestock by providing them with calming environments that simulate natural habitats,” veterinarian Sophie Whoriskey told Lifewire in an email interview. 

Cluck, Cluck…Click

VR may also boost hen’s health, according to researchers at Iowa State University. The scientists simulated a free-range environment in laying hen housing. The scientists found that showing hens VR scenes of chickens in more “natural” environments reduced indicators of stress in the hens’ blood and gut microbiota. The VR scenes also induced biochemical changes related to increased resistance to E. coli bacteria, a bacteria that poses health risks to poultry and humans who eat contaminated eggs.

“We need more research, but this suggests virtual reality could be a relatively simple tool to improve poultry health in confined environments and improve food safety,” Melha Mellata, a professor in Iowa State University’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, said in the news release. “It could also be a relatively inexpensive way to reduce infections and the need for antibiotics in egg production.”

VR can help reduce stress on livestock by providing them with calming environments that simulate natural habitats.

The researchers turned to Hollywood for inspiration when they conducted their study. They displayed video projections of chickens in free-range environments with indoor facilities leading to an outdoor fenced scratch area and an unfenced open prairie with grasses, shrubs, and flowers. The test subjects were 34 hens exposed to the videos over five days on all four walls of their housing.

To make things more realistic, the visual-only recordings showed diverse groups of free-range chickens performing activities associated with positive poultry behaviors based on time of day, such as preening, perching, dust-bathing, and nesting. Videos were not shown to a control group of the same size and age in the same type of housing.

Finally, the researchers investigated the chickens' blood and tissues and samples of their intestinal microbes. Chickens in the treatment group showed several beneficial changes compared to the control group. The differences included lower indicators of stress and increased resistance to bacteria that can cause sepsis and death in birds.

"There are many challenges associated with free-range production environments for laying hens, including potential for additional injuries, disease, and risks from predators. However, hens in free-range environments do tend to engage more often in positive, 'normal' behaviors that seem to enhance their overall health and immunity," Mellata said. "It's intriguing to think that even just showing hens free-range environments can stimulate similar immunological benefits.

The “Moo”-taverse

Cows aren't the only animals to get a VR treatment. A Turkish cattleman has experimented with virtual reality headsets on some of his cows to see if they can produce more milk. The virtual reality headsets create the illusion that the cows are outside in a sunny field.

"There were attempts to use VR to help cows produce more milk by reducing anxiety," Whoriskey said. "And while we still aren't sure whether this would work, this does raise some interesting questions: do cows and other farm animals perceive reality the same way we do? And if they do, what good will that bring them?"

A group of scientists has also created a program called FreeMoVR to immerse animals in a virtual reality world, presenting them with different stimuli and observing their responses moving freely in the environment. The program is meant to research spatial cognition and allows the animals to perceive the simulated objects as real and change their behavior in different visual environments.

The VR included vertical pillars, multiple plants, and a swarm of video game space invaders. High-speed cameras tracked and recorded the precise 3-D position of the animal. Meanwhile, a computer program registered each movement of the animal within milliseconds allowing an updated video to be constantly projected on the walls.

“Using software like this or some variation can provide deeper insights into animal behavior and how they may respond more favorably in their environment, allowing them to thrive,” Michael Cassens, a professor of gaming and interactive media at the University of Montana, told Lifewire via email.

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