U of G Research Promotes Change in Animal Care Codes

May 24, 2013 - News Release

Giving mom a break is as good for mink mothers as it is for human ones. New research from a University of Guelph professor shows that providing a respite shelf for a mink mother reduces her stress level, while her babies continue to grow well.

The work by Prof. Georgia Mason, a professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Science and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Animal Welfare, is also part of new national codes for looking after farmed mink.

The new codes for mink care and handling were released this week by the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC). Under the codes, farmers must provide “manipulable enrichments” such as balls and chew toys for all mink by the end of this year. By June 2014 farmers should provide a shelf or hammock to help reduce stress levels of mink mothers with infants.

In a two-year study, Mason found mink mothers show less stress when they are able retreat to a shelf or into a tube away from their babies.

Mom’s break even benefits her litter, as fewer of those babies died. One group of mothers also showed fewer signs of mastitis.

Mason also found animals given simple “toys” (balls and chews) become calmer, more fertile and better mothers.

“This has been very rewarding -- to see that we could make such a difference with this small, simple change,” Mason said.

NFACC codes of practice exist for nearly all farm animals. Existing codes for farmed mink were developed in 1988.

Each year, females give birth to an average of five or six cubs. By four weeks old, those cubs weigh more in total than the mother and make relentless demands on her.

Danish researchers were the first to suggest that shelves and simple “toys” might help. Mason, who is the only North American expert studying the welfare of farmed mink, wondered how these ideas would work in Canada.

She found mothers used escape shelves more often as their cubs got older. Females with larger litters spent more time on the shelf, but their cubs continued to grow well.

“They don’t turn into neglectful, lackadaisical mothers,” Mason said.

In the wild, a mother mink forages for food with short breaks from infant care.

Mason said adding shelves and other enrichments will improve mothers’ health and cub survival– and increase farmer profits.

Mink farming is a largely unknown but significant industry in Canada. About three million mink are born on Canadian farms every year, and farmers sell $223-million worth of pelts annually.

In Ontario alone, about 123,000 mink live on some 60 farms; most of them are breeding females. When those females give birth in the spring, the population increases to almost 600,000 -- almost double the number of dairy cows in the province. According to Statistics Canada, mink raised in Ontario generate almost $40 million annually.

Mason completed her research with the co-operation of Ontario mink farmers.

Prof. Georgia Mason
Department of Animal & Poultry Science
519 824-4120, Ext. 56804

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, lhunt@uoguelph.ca; or Kevin Gonsalves, Ext. 56982, kgonsalves@uoguelph.ca.

University of Guelph
50 Stone Road East
Guelph, Ontario, N1G 2W1