Microchipping vs. Branding Horses: Which is Less Stressful?

Microchipping vs. Branding Horses: Which is Less Stressful?

By measuring several factors that indicate stress in horses, the research team found no significant difference in stress levels between the horses that received an iron brand on the thigh or a microchip injected into the neck.

Photo: Nicolas Lesté-Lasserre

Identifying horses is a necessary part of horse ownership. But whether we should mark horses with a microchip implant or a hot iron brand has become a subject of "heated" debate.

Austrian researcher Christine Aurich, DVM, PhD, professor at the Graf Lehndorff Institute at the University of Veterinary Sciences in Vienna, and a research team set out to find a resolution to this issue. They studied the amount of stress brought on by iron branding and microchip implantation in 14 young foals between 1 and 5 months old--seven were branded and seven were microchipped--and compared the results.

By measuring the foals' heart rates, physical reactions, salivary levels of cortisol (the "stress" hormone), and skin temperatures, Aurich's team found no significant difference in stress levels between the horses that received an iron brand on the thigh or a microchip injected into the neck.

"We were a little bit surprised that branding did not result in a stronger stress reaction," Aurich said. "There was a tendency towards a higher cortisol release in the foals after branding, but it did not reach statistical significance."

Both the branded and the microchipped foals reacted physically to the identification procedures, but the researchers did not see any "pronounced aversive behavior," such as rearing or kicking out, in either group, Aurich said. And although cortisol levels did indicate both procedures were stressful, they were significantly less stressful than weaning, transport, or even training, as researched on previous studies.

Interestingly, when the foals were immobilized by humans for the procedure, they were found to be nearly as stressed as when having the procedure itself done, according to Aurich. "This was the most striking surprise of all," she said.

Iron branding has long been recognized as a painful procedure, but some countries' registries, particularly Europe's, claim that microchipping is more painful, Aurich said. "Our study at least clearly shows that this is not the truth," she added.

Although the procedure itself resulted in similar stress reactions, Aurich believes the branding procedure is more harmful because it produces an increase in skin temperature of the whole body, not just around the brand. Also, unlike microchipping, branding causes skin necrosis (tissue death) at the marking site.

Ultimately, choosing an identification method for a horse is a matter of personal preference, as branding and microchipping are equally stressful events. However, owners should consult with their veterinarian and consider possible side effects associated with branding and microchipping prior to beginning either process.

The study, "Physiological and behavioural responses of young horses to hot iron branding and microchip implantation," will be published in an upcoming issue of the Veterinary Journal. The abstract is available online.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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