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A wild hair: Using hair to gauge stress response in pigs

From mullets in the 1980s to bowl cuts a decade later, bad haircuts have caused humans plenty of stress. But Iowa State University animal science researchers are trying to find out if trimming pigs’ hair can provide insight into how they respond to stressors they encounter through life, including disease.

The researchers aim to use hair samples to identify genetics that allow pigs to respond favorably to a wide range of stressful situations, everything from being weaned from their mother, to being transported, to establishing a social order when mixed with other pigs, to combating disease. The effort could help produce pigs that lead less stressful lives and are more resilient and are, therefore, more productive. And it all starts with a quick trim.

Jack Dekkers, a Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor of Agriculture and Life Sciences and principal investigator of the study, said stress causes the production of the stress hormone cortisol and its counterpart, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). These hormones are deposited in hair as it grows. Dekkers compares these deposits in hair to tree rings. Studying the rings of a tree stump yields clues about that tree’s history. Studying the concentration of cortisol and DHEA in hair samples can help scientists piece together the level of stress an organism has experienced and how it has responded to that stress.

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