Funder and dates:
This is a PhD project aimed to develop a deeper understanding of how veterinary care influences equine welfare, how it can be optimised, and whether certain interventions are less stressful and/or potentially safer than the traditional methods used within the veterinary context. Veterinary treatment is essential for the welfare of the horse, yet the impact on the horse’s emotional state, and in turn its behavioural response, has not been investigated, nor have methods been adopted to prevent problem behaviours from occurring. In addition, equine veterinarians carry the highest rate of occupational injuries, with the behaviour of the horse being frequently cited as a major cause (e.g. BEVA, 2014). In this study we will investigate the aspects of the veterinary environment that horses find most stressful, so that through modifying the way in which horses are handled for veterinary investigation and treatment, the stress of restraint and subsequent treatment is reduced and the horse performs fewer dangerous escape or aversive behaviours.
The objectives for the study will be achieved through use of non-invasive measurements of the equine stress response, including; detailed behavioural analysis, as well as physiological indicators such as, infrared thermography, heart rate variability and salivary cortisol. Recordings will be taken opportunistically from horses with the owner’s consent, presenting to the equine hospital for routine appointments. The first set of recordings will be taken once the horses are settled in their ‘day box’, to generate a baseline value within the novel environment, and subsequent recordings will be taken during any treatments/investigations and handling interventions and at set intervals afterwards. The effectiveness of specific humane handling treatments designed to take into account equine behaviour and learning theory, will also be evaluated with both horses that have known aversions to certain interventions, and those who have no such history. We have already carried out some pilot work to test the application of these methods and our preliminary results suggest they may reduce the degree of stress a horse experiences during veterinary interventions and in turn reduce risk to the vet and equine handler.
This project will aim to generate evidence based information on the most humane and effective handling methods and protocols for dealing with equidae exhibiting unwanted fear/stress behaviours associated with veterinary diagnosis and treatment. This information can then be disseminated to equine veterinarians to enable them to use more ‘equine centred’ approaches to handling, restraint and veterinary treatment which will improve the welfare of equidae receiving veterinary care, as well as hopefully improve safety of personnel.