In late September the first International One Welfare Conference convened in Winnipeg, Canada. About 250 farmers, veterinarians, psychologists, social workers, physicians, scientists and academicians in these and related disciplines, government officials, students, and reporters from several countries gathered to consider how humans, animals, and sometimes other organisms interconnect behaviorally.

The conference took a comprehensive look at how humans and animals in particular mutually influence the behavioral well-being of one another. The conference featured ways that veterinarians and human behavioral healthcare professionals can assist each other.

Why One Welfare? Well, humans, animals and sometimes other inhabitants of our environments not only share in some 1,400 zoonotic illnesses (biological infections that can be exchanged among humans and other species, like swine and bird influenza), we also affect each other’s behavioral well-being.

For example, hoarding of animals, such as cats by a well-intentioned but obsessive-compulsive person, affects the health and behavioral well-being of both the cats and their caretaker. Filth such as feces can accumulate; both the cats and their hoarder often experience physical health issues and behavior distresses.

To illustrate further, research findings by scientists in several countries indicate that dairy cows have lower somatic cell counts and produce more milk, and feedlot animals have fewer diseases and grow faster, when their caretakers report feeling well emotionally. Moreover, as livestock producers and pet owners know, when the animals they care for are happy, the caretakers enjoy satisfaction.

The opposite is also true. Swedish researchers reported in several recently published studies that mastitis in dairy cows and illnesses in feedlot cattle occurred more frequently and necessitated more veterinary care, according to farm records, when the livestock caretakers reported feeling anxious, depressed, or were experiencing family relationship problems, or work issues, such as not feeling valued by coworkers and employers.

That this conference focused on inter-species behavioral health made it a “first-of-its-kind” event. As I prepared my plenary talk on the psychosocial health of the agricultural population, I began to rethink the definition of agricultural behavioral health, which I often write about in Farm and Ranch Life articles.

Previously I had thought about agricultural behavioral health as the interconnections of agriculture and behavioral healthcare in the psychological well-being of agricultural producers. I realized that the definition of agricultural behavioral health, like the concept of One Welfare, is broader and should include the behaviors of humans and animals, such as farm livestock and pets, and how we influence one another.

The behavior sciences, like psychology and behavioral epigenetics, look at behaviors both macroscopically and microscopically. In physics and chemistry, physical particles are measured by their size, weight, electrical charge and so forth; in the behavioral sciences, behaviors also are measured by their effects, frequency, intensity, and so forth.

One Welfare is a broad new horizon of theoretical science and applications.

What was learned? Besides grappling with the theoretical conceptualization of One Welfare, there were learnings for farmers, ranchers, and agency administrators, as well as specialists like veterinarians, behavioral healthcare professionals, and scientists in these areas.

Here are some of the main conclusions of the conference:

  • Humans and animals suffer similar behavioral health maladjustments, like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); treatments may be similar, but with species-specific medications and behavioral therapies; bomb-sniffing dogs and starving animals, for example, also experience PTSD as well as physical health problems;
  • Hoarding of animals by humans is common and requires both human and animal interventions and treatments; therapists treating obsessive compulsions and veterinarians caring for hoarded animals have common objectives in helping both humans and animals;
  • Disasters, such as floods, disease outbreaks and farm economic crises harm people and animals; this raises the question about how can veterinarians, behavioral health counselors, other professionals, and the public best provide assistance to all?
  • Compassion fatigue of animal caretakers occurs just like it occurs for human healthcare providers; what can be done to assist all caregivers?
  • Veterinarians are increasingly undertaking advanced training in public health and counseling so they can better assist clients with biological and behavioral health epidemics, offer support to clients who lose pets and farm animals, and to cope with animal euthanasia to stem disease outbreaks;
  • Agricultural production, actually almost everything, is now globally linked and consumers care how their food is produced;
  • Humans have much to learn about how animals sense the moods of their caretakers and such matters as cancer and diabetic crises;
  • The term mental health is obsolete; the term behavioral health is more appropriate in both human and veterinary medicine; and
  • Many conference participants recommended that the sponsors (the Veterinary Science Department of the University of Manitoba and the Manitoba Food and Rural Development Agency) plan follow-up conferences.

This conference was definitely an invigorating experience for me that I wanted to share with my readers. There is a bright future for agricultural behavioral health and the understanding of how we all have a stake in One Welfare.