Burn CC, Dennison TL, Whay HR (2010) Relationships between behaviour and health in working horses, donkeys, and mules in developing countries

Recent studies raise serious welfare concerns about the estimated 93.6 million horses, donkeys and mules in developing countries. Most horses, donkeys and mules are used for work in poor communities and are commonly afflicted with wounds, poor body condition, respiratory diseases, parasites, dental problems and lameness.

Non-physical welfare problems, such as fear of people, are also of concern. Interventions to improve working equine welfare aim to prioritise the conditions that cause the most severe impositions on the animals’ subjectively experienced welfare but data identifying which conditions these may be, are lacking. Here we describe a stage in the validation of behavioural welfare indicators that form part of a working equine welfare assessment protocol.

Over four years, behavioural and physical data were collected from 5,481 donkeys, 4,504 horses, and 858 mules across nine developing countries. Behaviours included the animals’ general alertness and their responses to four human-interaction tests, using the unfamiliar observer as the human stimulus.

Avoidance behaviours correlated significantly with each other across the human-interaction tests, with 21% of animals avoiding the observer, but showing no associations with likely anthropogenic injuries. Over 13% of equids appeared ‘apathetic’: lethargic rather than alert.

Measures of unresponsiveness correlated with each other across the five tests, and were associated with poor body condition, abnormal mucous membrane colour, faecal soiling, eye abnormalities, more severe wounds, and older age, depending on the equine species.

This suggests that working equids in poor physical health show an unresponsive behavioural profile, consistent with sickness behaviour, exhaustion, chronic pain, or depression-like states.

The full paper can be purchased from: Science Direct

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