Studying Animal Stress Levels at the Calgary Stampede

Dr. Ed Pajor’s research uses infrared thermography to determine performance animals’ stress levels while they’re in the chutes at the Calgary Stampede


Photo courtesy of University of Calgary

During Stampede week, it’s not uncommon to hear claims that the animals are mistreated, that they’re afraid to compete and the rodeo is inhumane. But is this really the case? Is it even possible to understand their emotions and measure animals’ stress responses?

That’s exactly what Dr Ed Pajor, professor of animal behaviour and welfare in the faculty of veterinary medicine at the University of Calgary, wants to find out.

Why the research is being done

Pajor is asking: do animals really find handling and rodeo sports to be aversive? “According to our behavioural observations, not a lot of animals do,” says Pajor. Between 70 and 80 per cent of the animals in the chutes show behaviour that would not be associated with fear or stress.

But observing behaviour is one thing. The next step is having solid, qualitative data analyzing physiological responses to back up that claim.

Measuring performance animals’ stress levels

Since 2013, Pajor and his team have been examining performance animals’ stress levels using something called infrared thermography, or IRT. “This is basically a camera that takes the temperature of various things, and it’s used in all kinds of different industries,” says Pajor. In the animal health industry, for example, IRT is used to identify areas of inflammation; there is increased heat to an inflamed, injured area.

In this particular study, Pajor and his team take a picture of the animal’s eye before any activity or handling and register the temperature. Following some sort of procedure or handling, the eye temperature is measured again. Eye temperature is measured instead of the animal’s body temperature because the eye is highly innervated by the nervous system, specifically, the autonomic nervous system. Animals, including humans, have two nervous systems and the autonomic nervous system is a major component for emotional response. Because the eyes are supplied with so many of these nerves, and because the eye is so exposed, it’s easy to get an accurate measurement. “If the animal is feeling stressed or aroused,” says Pajor, “the temperature of the eye will increase due to increased blood flow.” While it’s difficult to know if what the animal is really feeling is fear or excitement, Pajor says that elevation in temperature is associated with stressful conditions.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, novice animals were more likely to demonstrate nervous behaviour in the chutes than animals with more experience. Adding to that, an animal ridden by a novice rider also has higher stress levels than when an experienced athlete is riding. Data from this year’s Stampede is still being collected.

Why this research is innovative

There aren’t many tools out there for measuring animals’ physiological response to stress that are noninvasive. The alternative options are blood tests or saliva tests to measure the level of cortisol, a stress hormone, or by strapping on a heart rate monitor. “The strap isn’t as invasive as the samples,” says Pajor, “but handling an animal that isn’t used to being handled is still somewhat invasive.”

Temple Grandin’s involvement in the project

This study isn’t just a Calgary project. Outside professional help has been used as well. And when it comes to animal behaviour, Temple Grandin is an expert.

Grandin is a professor of animal science, an autistic activist and a consultant to the livestock industry. Famously, she claims that her autistic mind “thinks like a cow;” she thinks in pictures, rather than words, allowing her to understand animal behaviour in a way the non-autistic mind cannot.

Grandin is a collaborator on this project and was very much involved in the genesis of the project when the focus was on behaviour rather than IRT. “I’ve known Temple for a number of years,” says Pajor. “We serve on some international committees together, like the McDonalds Animal Welfare Committee. She’s done a lot of work in this area of rodeo animals, looking at cattle in particular, and I asked her if she’d come up and help me get started.” That is, some of the best minds in the field are involved in the project.

Moving forward

When the Calgary Stampede ends in a few days, after, Pajor and his team will begin examining the results of the two-year combined data study. While their research is some of the first to look at bucking stock in this way, the implications of the study go beyond the rodeo. The project also aims to increase the amount of research done on performance animals used in chuckwagon racing, rodeo and show jumping.

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