India, the country with the largest population of dairy cows in the world, has a policy of retiring abandoned and non-lactating cows in shelters, but the level of provision for their welfare in these shelters is unclear. Cows in 54 shelters across India were assessed for historic evidence of physiological stress, through determination of hair cortisol in 540 samples from 10 cows in each shelter by enzyme immunoassay. Animal-based and shelter resource-based welfare measures were recorded and correlations with the hair cortisol investigated by multivariable analysis. High hair cortisol concentrations were associated with dung in the lying area of the cowshed, a low dry bulb temperature there and little cow access to yards, as shelter-based variables. At a cow level, high hair cortisol concentrations were associated with dirty flanks, hock joint ulceration, carpal joint injuries, body lesions, dehydration, an empty rumen, old age, and low levels of body hair loss. Hair cortisol level promises to be an effective biomarker of stress in cows when conducting studies under field conditions.
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