The influence of pharmacologically-induced affective states on attention bias in sheep.PeerJ 2019; 7:e7033P
When an individual attends to certain types of information more than others, the behavior is termed an attention bias. The occurrence of attention biases in humans and animals can depend on their affective states. Based on evidence from the human literature and prior studies in sheep, we hypothesized that an attention bias test could discriminate between pharmacologically-induced positive and negative affective states in sheep. The test measured allocation of attention between a threat and a positive stimulus using key measures of looking time and vigilance. Eighty 7-year-old Merino ewes were allocated to one of four treatment groups; Anxious (m-chlorophenylpiperazine), Calm (diazepam), Happy (morphine) and Control (saline). Drugs were administered 30 min prior to attention bias testing. The test was conducted in a 4 × 4.2 m arena with high opaque walls. An approximately life-size photograph of a sheep was positioned on one wall of the arena (positive stimulus). A small window with a retractable opaque cover was positioned on the opposite wall, behind which a dog was standing quietly (threat). The dog was visible for 3 s after a single sheep entered the arena, then the window was covered and the dog was removed. Sheep then remained in the arena for 3 min while behaviors were recorded. Key behaviors included time looking toward the dog wall or photo wall, duration of vigilance behavior and latency to become non-vigilant. In contrast with our hypothesis, no significant differences were found between treatment groups for duration of vigilance or looking behaviors, although Anxious sheep tended to be more vigilant than Control animals (P < 0.1) and had a longer latency to become non-vigilant (P < 0.001). A total of 24 of 80 animals were vigilant for the entire test duration. This censoring of data may explain why no differences were detected between groups for vigilance duration. Overall, a lack of difference between groups may suggest the test cannot discriminate positive and negative states in sheep. We suggest that the censoring of vigilance duration data, the use of insufficient drug doses, the potential influence of background noise and the age of the sheep may explain a lack of difference between groups. Due to these potential effects, it remains unclear whether the attention bias test can detect positive states in sheep.