I’m Charlotte Burn, an Associate Professor in Animal Welfare & Behaviour Science at Royal Veterinary College (RVC). My background is in biology, and I apply science to help improve animal welfare and to better understand the emotional capacities of animals. I’m also a trustee of the Animal Welfare Foundation.
My research is a real mixture! At the moment, I’m mainly working on understanding and mitigating boredom in animals such as dogs and ferrets, improving laboratory rodent welfare, and understanding risk factors for poor welfare in pet rabbits. I could summarise my research so far as covering all sorts of animals ranging from crabs to cows! My work involves using a variety of techniques to answer different hypotheses, including epidemiological methods to explore risk factors, detailed observations of animals to test whether potential solutions to a problem actually work, and social sciences to understand how to improve the way humans interact with animals. As well as research, I also spend about half my time teaching university students.
I applied for an AWF grant because AWF values research that goes beyond health alone, and explicitly considers animal welfare. For example, AWF would want to focus on those health conditions that really impact the animal quality of life, and would want to understand how any solutions will improve the animals’ quality of life. The year I applied to do this research, AWF had a research theme of ‘breeding for better welfare’, so the project I applied with really fitted that theme.
For full disclosure, as I mentioned, I am a trustee of AWF, which is a position I applied for because I think AWF is an important charity for keeping animal welfare at the heart of the veterinary professions. My trustee position meant that I had a good understanding of what kind of research AWF were likely to value. However, needless to say, I was not involved in evaluating whether my own grant proposal was one of the ones suitable for AWF funding, so that the process was fair and honest. It’s important that AWF funds whichever research projects can contribute the most to its mission of evidence-based improvement of animal welfare.
I’m passionate about this project because ear and dental conditions can cause a lot of pain and anxiety in rabbits, often chronically so, and I think this project will make a positive difference by helping us understand whether and how to breed rabbits that don’t suffer from these conditions.
I previously did some work on the welfare impacts of extreme conformations in dogs, and I wondered if one of the most obvious conformational features of domesticated rabbits could similarly affect rabbit welfare: namely, whether their ears can point upwards, like wild rabbit ears, or whether they have lop ears. Vets have long suspected that lop-eared rabbits have increased risk of ear conditions, so a student and I started to investigate this risk in a small rescue population of rabbits and found both ear and dental conditions to be much more common in those lops. However, an important question remains as to whether this is true for larger populations of pet rabbits, and to what extent it is feasible to carefully breed for lop-eared rabbits without these conditions. Some lop-eared rabbits do seem to be free of ear and dental problems, so we need to understand the situation better in order to reliably breed for healthy rabbits.
This project is important because, when health conditions are caused by the shape of an animal’s own body, they can lead to life-long, or near life-long, suffering. They are usually difficult to treat without extensive surgery, and they can cause secondary health problems. Also, because they’re so long-lasting, they can often go unnoticed by people, because they seem normal for the animal. For example, chronic pain can make rabbits inactive, and this might appear as if the rabbits are just, say, ‘docile’ or ‘calm’. The best way to end conformation-related suffering is to stop breeding animals who will face inevitable suffering from their body shape, so working with conscientious breeders to understand how to breed for good welfare is a crucial step towards this.
"Patience, curiosity, honesty, and integrity are important mindsets to help you navigate any scientific career, including those concerned with animal welfare."
Being able to gather evidence that helps us make genuinely effective decisions about how to solve animal welfare problems. It’s a way of helping make the world a better place. I also like the way that my and other people’s research findings often surprise me, and I’m always learning new things about animals. The more I learn about animals, the more amazing I think they are.
Ultimately, I’d like the research to help lead to a future where all pet rabbits are bred to have healthy bodies that give them a real chance of leading fulfilling and enjoyable lives. An ideal perhaps, but let’s aim high!
It’s a really interesting, meaningful career, but also challenging in many ways. If you’re a student, you can look for courses and intercalation opportunities that teach you about the science of animal welfare. For example, we run a BSc course all about this at RVC, and it’s open to intercalators too. Also, seek funding to do your own animal welfare research project, like AWF’s Student Grant Scheme. Not only does it give you a fantastic learning experience about an animal welfare issue you care about, but it’ll help you stand out from the crowd.
If you’re a graduate (recent or not!), you can look out for animal welfare research training opportunities, such as Masters degrees that have taught components plus a research project, or you can apply for post-graduate animal welfare research MRes or PhD projects. The latter usually come with a stipend, or sometimes there are paid research assistant jobs advertised as part of animal welfare projects.
Either way, people often want to do animal welfare research to ‘make a difference’, but it’s important to manage your expectations. You have to be open to unexpected findings, and the route to real-world improvement is often complex. Patience, curiosity, honesty, and integrity are important mindsets to help you navigate any scientific career, including those concerned with animal welfare.Read about Charlotte's AWF funded project: Investigation of whether lop eared conformations predispose rabbits to ear and dental disease: a pedigree population study