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Guelph researcher studies whether exercise leads to healthier hens

You’ve probably heard that if you can interest children in sports or exercise, they’ll stay active and healthy when they’re older.

Teresa Casey-Trott is wondering whether that advice applies to chickens as well.

Casey-Trott is in the fourth year of her PhD at the University of Guelph, where she’s investigating the degree to which bone health in adult laying hens is affected by getting them off to a healthy start during the first 16–18 weeks of their lives.

“It’s a very critical period, just like with growing children,” says Casey-Trott. “You want the hen to last, live a healthy life and produce good-quality eggs.”

Unlike many poultry scientists, Casey-Trott’s own early years weren’t spent living on a farm, but rather in the mid-sized city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Growing up, she says, she was teased for being “a city kid with a country heart.” She now lives outside Guelph with her husband, cats, dogs and herd of alpacas. Yes, alpacas. There’s a donkey, too. “Watching them is a great source of curiosity for me,” she says. “It’s a hobby but also stress relief, to wonder why they do the things they do.”

Hens, though, are Casey-Trott’s professional interest, and for her most recent project she’s been observing different groups of the birds over the course of their lives to see if “load-bearing exercise” during the critical 16-18 week rearing period has an effect on promoting healthy bones when they begin laying eggs. The specific bone Casey-Trott is interested in is the keel bone, which is attached to the flight muscles and plays a key role in respiration. It can also fracture during egg laying, says Casey-Trott, because so much of the hen’s calcium is being diverted to the production of eggs. Casey-Trott has been studying whether there’s a link between the keel bone health of laying hens and their environment. She’s just embarking on the process of analyzing all the data, but Casey-Trott hopes she’ll find a connection. The results will form the core of her PhD thesis, which she’s hoping to conclude by the fall of 2016.

Reflecting on her experience to date, Casey-Trott notes the keen support she’s received from the university community. “I came up to Guelph with very little animal behaviour and welfare experience,” she says. “It’s a pretty tight-knit group, and they’re very supportive of each other. I really feel like I’ve learned a lot.”