A Theoretically Based Model of Rat Personality with Implications for Welfare

Franks, Kathryn Rebecca; Higgins, Edward Tory; Champagne, Frances Anne

As animal personality research becomes more central to the study of animal behavior, there is increasing need for theoretical frameworks addressing its causes and consequences. We propose that regulatory focus theory (RFT) could serve as one such framework while also providing insights into how animal personality relates to welfare. RFT distinguishes between two types of approach motivation: promotion, the motivation to approach gains, and prevention, the motivation to approach or maintain safety. Decades of research have established the utility of RFT as a model of human behavior and recent evidence from zoo-housed primates and laboratory rats has suggested that it may be applicable to nonhuman animal behavior as well. Building on these initial studies, we collected data on 60 rats, Rattus norvegicus, navigating an automated maze that allowed individuals to maintain darkness (indicative of prevention/safety-approach motivation) and/or activate food rewards (indicative of promotion/gain-approach motivation). As predicted, both behaviors showed stable individual differences (Ps <0.01) and were inversely associated with physiological signs of chronic stress, possibly indicating poor welfare (Ps <0.05). Subsequently, half the rats were exposed to a manageable threat (noxious novel object) in the homecage. Re-testing in the maze revealed that threat exposure increased darkness time achieved (P<0.05), suggesting a mechanism by which prevention motivation may be enhanced. These results point toward the potential utility of RFT as a model for animal behavior and welfare.


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September 23, 2014