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Do rewards change an animal’s emotional state?

Project Description

It is well established that punishing or threatening events lead to long lasting negative emotional (affective) states in animals, such as fear, anxiety and even depression. Improving the welfare of managed animals focuses predominantly on reducing or removing experiences that cause negative affective states. However, an animal’s long-term emotional state is widely thought to be shaped by the cumulative experience of positive rewarding events as well as negative experiences. These theories have yet to be tested, and the idea that positive events can improve emotional state is largely unexplored in animals. The big question remains: do rewarding stimuli and events actually change an animal’s emotional state, such as reducing anxiety or depression, and can rewards be used to improve animal welfare?

In humans, recent positive events can increase how people subjectively rate their welfare. Experience of positive emotions can also reduce stress reactivity and increase resilience in people, suggesting that positive emotions may also bring mental and physical health benefits. Given that very few studies have yet attempted to address these potential benefits in animals, it is important to know if and how rewards impact on animals’ emotions to develop effective and practical interventions that improve animal welfare, whether for farm, laboratory or companion animals.

The aims of the project will be to:
1. Establish short and longer term impacts of reward schedules on animal emotional states
2. Compare the effectiveness of two different types of reward - social and nutritional – for improving emotional state
3. Assess whether rewards can help reduce stress reactivity, increase resilience to future negative events and increase physical as well as emotional well-being.

Using mice as a model species, you will investigate how different types of rewards (social, nutritional) and reward schedules can positively impact emotional state. You will look at how this influences stress reactivity and resilience using a range of behavioural and physiological measures. Understanding the influence of cumulative experiences (positive and negative) on an individual’s long-term welfare has broad applicability for improving the welfare and practical management of farm, laboratory and companion animals.

The project links two well-established teams at Liverpool (https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/mammalian-behaviour-and-evolution/) and Newcastle (https://www.ncl.ac.uk/cbe/) who will provide you with excellent training in experimental design; best practice 3Rs approaches and skills required for working with animals; a wide range of behavioural methods, operant techniques and physiological assessment; statistical analysis of complex datasets; skills for effective presentation, writing, public engagement, and achieving impact.

Applications should be made by emailing with a CV (including contact details of at least two academic (or other relevant) referees), and a covering letter – clearly stating your first choice project, and optionally 2nd and 3rd ranked projects, as well as including whatever additional information you feel is pertinent to your application; you may wish to indicate, for example, why you are particularly interested in the selected project(s) and at the selected University. Applications not meeting these criteria will be rejected.
In addition to the CV and covering letter, please email a completed copy of the Additional Details Form (Word document) to . A blank copy of this form can be found at: https://www.nld-dtp.org.uk/how-apply.
Informal enquiries may be made to

Funding Notes

This is a 4 year BBSRC studentship under the Newcastle-Liverpool-Durham DTP. The successful applicant will receive research costs, tuition fees and stipend (£15,009 for 2019-20). The PhD will start in October 2020. Applicants should have, or be expecting to receive, a 2.1 Hons degree (or equivalent) in a relevant subject. EU candidates must have been resident in the UK for 3 years in order to receive full support. Please note, there are 2 stages to the application process.


Improving the practicality of using non-aversive handling methods to reduce background stress and anxiety in laboratory mice. Scientific Reports [submitted]

Mice express positive emotions despite being in a negative mood state. Current Biology [submitted]

Darcin activates a neural circuit that elicits a complex and variable behavioral array that may optimize mate encounters. Nature (in press)

Flicker fusion camouflage hides moving prey. Current Biology 29: 1-5 (2019)

Validation of mouse welfare indicators: a Delphi consultation survey. Scientific Reports 9:10249 (2019)

Handling method alters the hedonic value of reward in laboratory mice. Scientific Reports 8: 2448 (2018)

Using preferred fluids and different reward schedules to motivate rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) in cognitive tasks. Laboratory Animals 53: 372-382 (2018)

Optimising reliability of mouse performance in behavioural testing: the major role of non-aversive handling. Scientific Reports, 7: 44999 (2017)

The Assessment of Post-Vasectomy Pain in Mice Using Behaviour and the Mouse Grimace Scale. PLoS One 7: e35656 (2012)

Taming anxiety in laboratory mice. Nature Methods, 7: 825-826 (2010)

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