Working Horse, Donkey, and Mule Welfare Examined in New Study

After collecting and analyzing five years' worth of data on the welfare of working equids in developing countries, researchers have identified some factors associated with potential welfare issues and means of intervening and improving the welfare of the most susceptible animals can now be devised.

Since more than 85% of the world's equids (estimated at 94 million) live in developing countries where they are used for work, and because there are few studies looking at how different types of work affect these animals' welfare, researchers sought to identify environments with vulnerable animals and subsequently initiate appropriate interventions to improve welfare.

"We collected behavioral and physical data from 5,481 donkeys, 4,504 horses, and 858 mules working in such areas as Egypt, Jordan, India, Kenya, Pakistan, The Gambia, and Guatemala," explained Charlotte Burn, BA (Oxon), MSc, D.Phil., on behalf of her colleagues from Clinical Veterinary Sciences at the University of Bristol, together with the Brooke Hospital for Animals. "This included data regarding age, sex, work-type, aggression, apathy, body condition, surface parasites, fecal soiling, skin and foot lesions, gait abnormalities, and tendon or joint swelling."

Key findings in this study were:

  • 90% of equids had hoof and limb problems;
  • 85% were classified as thin, with their ribs, spine, and hips clearly visible;
  • Rural equids had more health problems than urban equids; however, urban equids had more skin lesions and were more aggressive to humans;
  • More problems were identified in equids used to transport people by cart, to carry goods by pack, or to work in brick kilns; even so, some of the thinnest individuals were used in tourism, so improving tourist awareness could help drive improvements for those animals;
  • In warmer climates where heat stress and dehydration may be a particular problem, equids were significantly thinner, and
  • Body condition score was a useful indicator of other problems. Thinner animals had significantly more skin and firing lesions, gait and sole abnormalities, fecal soiling, surface parasites, and appeared more apathetic.

"One interesting finding was that horses were thinner where green grazing was present. While this finding is counter-intuitive, it could be because the animals acquire parasites from the pasture, the pastures may be poor quality, or the equids simply do not have access to it, relayed Burn. "Green grazing provides essential nutrients for these animals, suggesting that improving access to good quality, parasite-free pastures is important."

The study provides valuable clues as to which risks correlated with particular problems, but it doesn't tell us the reasons why they are associated. Research to verify and understand these risk factors and their impact on working equines therefore requires further study.

The study, "Environmental and demographic risk factors of poor welfare in working horses, donkeys, and mules in developing countries," is scheduled to be published in an upcoming edition of The Veterinary Journal. The abstract is available on PubMed.

About the Author

Stacey Oke, DVM, MSc

Stacey Oke, MSc, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian and freelance medical writer and editor. She is interested in both large and small animals, as well as complementary and alternative medicine. Since 2005, she's worked as a research consultant for nutritional supplement companies, assisted physicians and veterinarians in publishing research articles and textbooks, and written for a number of educational magazines and websites.

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