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For farmed species, good health and welfare is a win-win situation: both the animals and producers can benefit. In recent years, animal welfare scientists have embraced cognitive sciences to rise to the challenge of determining an animal's internal state in order to better understand its welfare needs and by extension, the needs of larger groups of animals. A wide range of cognitive tests have been developed that can be applied in farmed species to assess a range of cognitive traits. However, this has also presented challenges. Whilst it may be expected to see cognitive variation at the species level, differences in cognitive ability between and within individuals of the same species have frequently been noted but left largely unexplained. Not accounting for individual variation may result in misleading conclusions when the results are applied both at an individual level and at higher levels of scale. This has implications both for our fundamental understanding of an individual's welfare needs, but also more broadly for experimental design and the justification for sample sizes in studies using animals. We urgently need to address this issue. In this review, we will consider the latest developments on the causes of individual variation in cognitive outcomes, such as the choice of cognitive test, sex, breed, age, early life environment, rearing conditions, personality, diet, and the animal's microbiome. We discuss the impact of each of these factors specifically in relation to recent work in farmed species, and explore the future directions for cognitive research in this field, particularly in relation to experimental design and analytical techniques that allow individual variation to be accounted for appropriately.
PMID: 30175105 [PubMed]