Review Article

The involvement of the hypothalamopituitary-adrenocortical axis in stress physiology and its significance in the assessment of animal welfare in cattle

Emma J. Brown, Andre Vosloo
Onderstepoort Journal of Veterinary Research | Vol 84, No 1 | a1398 | DOI: | © 2017 Emma J. Brown, Andre Vosloo | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 07 November 2016 | Published: 28 April 2017

About the author(s)

Emma J. Brown, School of Life Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Westville Campus, South Africa
Andre Vosloo, School of Life Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Westville Campus, South Africa


The intensification of cattle production has raised concern for animal welfare due to the stress that is associated with farming practices. The welfare of an animal is determined by the animal’s ability to cope with or adapt to its continuously changing environment and the biological cost that is associated with this adaptation and maintenance. Stressors arise from various psychological, physiological and physical aspects of farming practices due to management and human–cattle interactions. Measuring the activity of the hypothalamopituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis with plasma cortisol levels is a useful method for determining the effects of stress on animals as it is stimulated at the onset of a perceived stress. The activation of the HPA axis affects various target tissues or systems and can result in suppression of the immune system, increased susceptibility to disease and adverse effects on reproductive success in prenatal and neonatal calves. Although some levels of stress associated with farming practices are unavoidable, improvements in farming methods need to be implemented in order to maintain or increase the efficiency of cattle production in a way that does not compromise the welfare of the animal.


Stress; HPA axis; Cattle; Animal Welfare; Reproduction; Immune Function


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