Open Access Research article

Hypothalamic vasotocin and tyrosine hydroxylase levels following maternal care and selection for low mortality in laying hens

Susie E Hewlett1, Elly C Zeinstra1, Frank JCM van Eerdenburg2, TB Rodenburg3, Peter JS van Kooten4, FJ van der Staay15 and Rebecca E Nordquist15*

Author Affiliations

1 Emotion & Cognition Group, Department of Farm Animal Health, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht University, Yalelaan 7, 3584, CL, Utrecht, The Netherlands

2 Advances in Veterinary Medicine, Department of Farm Animal Health, Utrecht University, Utrecht, the Netherlands

3 Behavioural Ecology Group, Wageningen University, Wageningen, the Netherlands

4 Department of Infectious Diseases and Immunology, Division of Immunology, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht University, Utrecht, the Netherlands

5 Brain Center Rudolf Magnus, University Medical Center Utrecht, Utrecht, the Netherlands

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BMC Veterinary Research 2014, 10:167  doi:10.1186/1746-6148-10-167

Published: 31 July 2014



Feather pecking and cannibalism are major concerns in poultry farming, both in terms of animal welfare and farm economics. Genetic selection and introduction of (aspects of) maternal care have been suggested as potential interventions to reduce feather pecking in laying hens. Altered brain development has been proposed to reflect welfare states in animals, and can provide more insight into the underlying processes involved in feather pecking. Both vasotocin (the avian homologue of vasopressin) and dopaminergic neural circuitry have roles in control of social behaviors as well as in the stress response, and may be linked to feather pecking. Thus, the hypothalamus of adult laying hens selected for low early mortality (LML), which show low feather pecking, was examined and compared with a control line of adult laying hens selected for production characteristics only (CL). The effect of foster hen rearing on the two genetic lines and their hypothalamic morphology was also investigated.


We demonstrated an increase in the number of neurons positive for the rate-limiting enzyme in dopamine production, tyrosine hydroxylase, in the periventricular area of the hypothalamus in the LML hens compared to CL hens. Hen-reared chicks showed more vasotocin -positive neurons in the medial pre-optic area compared to the hens raised without a hen. No correlations were found between behavior in an open field at 5–6 weeks of age, and the histology of the same hens at adulthood.


The hypothalamic dopaminergic and vasotinergic systems are altered in hens following genetic selection or maternal care, indicating a potential role for these systems in feather pecking.

Hypothalamus; Vasotocin; Vasopressin; Tyrosine hydroxylase; Dopamine; Welfare; Laying hen