Animal Cognition

, Volume 19, Issue 1, pp 207–214 | Cite as

Laterality as an indicator of emotional stress in ewes and lambs during a separation test

  • Shanis Barnard
  • Lindsay Matthews
  • Stefano Messori
  • Michele Podaliri-Vulpiani
  • Nicola Ferri
Original Paper


We assessed motor laterality in sheep to explore species-specific brain hemi-field dominance and how this could be affected by genetic or developmental factors. Further, we investigated whether directionality and strength of laterality could be linked to emotional stress in ewes and their lambs during partial separation. Forty-three ewes and their singleton lambs were scored on the (left/right) direction of turn in a y-maze to rejoin a conspecific (laterality test). Further, their behavioural response (i.e. time spent near the fence, vocalisations, and activity level) during forced separation by an open-mesh fence was assessed (separation test). Individual laterality was recorded for 44.2 % ewes (significant right bias) and 81.4 % lambs (equally biased to the left and the right). There was no significant association in side bias between dams and offspring. The Chi-squared test revealed a significant population bias for both groups (p < 0.05). Evolutionary adaptive strategies or stimuli-related visual laterality may provide explanation for this decision-making process. Absolute strength of laterality (irrespective of side) was high (Kolmogorov–Smirnov test, dams: D = 0.2; p < 0.001; lambs: D = 0.36, p < 0.0001). The Wilcoxon test showed that lateralised lambs and dams spent significantly more time near each other during separation than non-lateralised animals (p < 0.05), and that lateralised dams were also more active than non-lateralised ones. Arguably, the lateralised animals showed a greater attraction to their pair because they were more disturbed and thus required greater reassurance. The data show that measures of laterality offer a potential novel non-invasive indicator of separation stress.


Emotional process Laterality Sheep Stress Welfare 



The authors would like to thank Doriano Ferrari, Giulio Di Michele, and Berardo De Dominicis for their help during in animal management and in field activities.

Compliance with ethical standards

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale dell’Abruzzo e del MoliseTeramoItaly
  2. 2.School of PsychologyQueen’s University BelfastBelfastUK
  3. 3.Agriculture and Food SystemsThe University of MelbourneParkvilleAustralia

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