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The dark side of white hair? Artificial light irradiation reduces cortisol concentrations in white but not black hairs of cattle and pigs

Analysing hair cortisol concentrations (HCCs) is a minimally invasive way to retrospectively assess long-term stress, and its application in studies of animal welfare and stress has attracted considerable interest. However, not only stress-related effects but also hair-specific characteristics and external influences can affect HCCs and interfere with the interpretation of results. Thus, it was the aim of this study to investigate the impact of daylight and UV irradiation on cortisol concentrations in the hairs of pigs and cattle. We also examined whether a potential irradiation effect on HCCs depended on the colour of the hair. For this purpose, black and white hair samples from 18 Saddleback pigs and 18 Holstein Friesian cattle were exposed to artificial light (both visible and UV) and compared with control hair samples from the same animals kept in the dark. Exposure to artificial light significantly decreased HCCs in both pigs (P < 0.05) and cattle (P < 0.001), and hair colour had an influence on HCCs, with black hair showing higher cortisol levels than white hair (cattle: P < 0.001, pigs: P = 0.07). The interaction between light exposure and hair colour was significant in both pigs (P < 0.01) and cattle (P < 0.001), so light exposure reduced HCCs in porcine white hair but not black hair. In cattle, light-exposed white hair exhibited lower hair cortisol levels than control white hair or black hair. These results demonstrate that artificial light irradiation degrades hair cortisol or favours its elimination by structural changes of the hair matrix. However, this effect was only detectable in white hair, indicating that the melanin pigments in black hair absorbed radiation, thereby reducing the effects of photodegradation. Compared with other known influencing factors on HCCs, such as age and body region, the influence of light irradiation was relatively low in this in vitro experiment. However, further studies should investigate this influence under real-life animal conditions, such as outdoor and indoor housing.

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