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Animal welfare, particularly in pig, is a constraint for animal breeding. In this regard the Italian D.Lgs 53/2004 established that from 2013 sows and gilts shall be kept in groups during the four weeks after the service to one week before the expected farrowing time. Although its relevance is conceptually and extensively recognised, animal welfare is not yet fully characterized at an objective level and a protocol based on parameters for objectively evaluating animal welfare is still not available. The aim of this study was to evaluate a series of approaches in order to define informative markers associated with animal welfare, which allow an objective assessment of this status in the farm. Eight hundred pregnant sows reared in single and group-housing systems in a local farm were compared at different levels of investigation before and after the changeover imposed by law. Ethological, clinical, reproductive, metabolic and immunological measures were detected for each of the eight weeks of gestation (4 and 8-14). At the same time transcriptomic analysis of blood cells was conducted by OpenArray System on 224 genes involved in immunological response. The informativeness of the variables was studied by factor analysis and the effect of the housing system and the gestational week were studied by GLM. The odds ratio was calculated with the random component. Results showed that the group-housing system, contrary to the single-housing one, presented no stereotypy but significant increase in the frequency of lameness (P<0.001) and a decrease in fertility parameters (non-return to estrus 56-day post AI: 83% vs. 92%; farrowing rate: 78% vs. 88%, respectively) (P<0.05). The group-housing system revealed differences in the hematological picture for some parameters indicator of the metabolic status (ameliorative values for albumin, OR=4.4 and ALP OR=1.5 and pejorative for the AST, OR=0.6 and bilirubin, OR=0.4) when compared to the single, while at immunological level showed ameliorative values for bactericidal (OR=3.2) and complement (OR=24.3) and pejorative for lysozyme (OR=0.3) and C-reactive protein (P<0.001). At the functional genomics level, out of the 224 genes analyzed, 88 were under-expressed (Log FoldChange ≤1.5; P<0.05) in group-housing with respect to the single-housing system, within all the weeks and for all the gestational groups. Overall, the results of this multidisciplinary study provide potential candidates markers of sows housing relating stress.
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