The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) made the welfare of unwanted horses in the United States a priority for the foreseeable future, according to AAEP leaders during the annual convention.

While the AAEP's stand against the national bill that bans slaughter of horses has been seen as a negative by many horse owners, the AAEP is not pro-slaughter, but pro-horse, said incoming president Scott Palmer, VMD. AAEP members see their role as the stewards of the horse, and they see the current bill as only a Band-Aid for a small cut in the otherwise gaping wound that is equine welfare in this country.

The AAEP, in conjunction with other groups, will host a national industry summit on the unwanted horse in Washington, D.C., on April 19 during the American Horse Council conference. The AAEP is so serious about the plight of the unwanted horse that it held a session on that topic during the convention.

In the AAEP unwanted horse seminar, Tom Lenz, DVM, a former AAEP president, discussed acceptable euthanasia procedures, carcass disposal, and equine slaughter.

He noted that the term euthanasia comes from the Greek word eu, meaning good, and thanatos, meaning death. "A good death is one that occurs with minimal pain and at the appropriate time in the horse's life as to prevent unnecessary pain and suffering," stated Lenz. "Justification for euthanatization of a horse for humane reasons should always be based on medical considerations as well as future quality-of-life issues for the horse."

Lenz noted there are only three acceptable methods of euthanasia for horses as published by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) expert panel on euthanasia and endorsed by the AAEP: Overdose of barbiturate anesthesia, gunshot, and penetrating captive bolt.

Among reasons cited by the AAEP in opposing the slaughter ban bill is the limitation of euthanasia to barbiturate overload, with gunshot only allowed in emergency and captive bolt banned. "This restriction does not conform to the expert advice of the AVMA's panel on euthanasia and removes the opportunity for professional judgment when determining the best form of euthanasia for a particular horse," said Lenz.

Also, the cost to keep a horse per year (without veterinary and farrier care) is estimated to be about $1,825 per horse, resulting in needed funds of more than $124 million per year to care for unwanted horses. That number will grow exponentially each year, and there is no provision in the bill to fund for the care of these horses.

The bill also fails to establish standards of care for rescue facilities.

"The slaughter of horses in the United States has struck an emotional chord within the horse industry and the general public," said Lenz. "Although the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act and its supporters are well-intentioned, the passage of these proposed acts of legislation will create a series of unintended consequences that will negatively impact the health and welfare of our nation's horses."

Numbers Don't Lie

Nat Messer, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, associate professor of equine internal medicine at the University of Missouri and a long-time welfare proponent, defined an unwanted horse:

"Unwanted horses represent a subset of horses in the domestic equine population that are no longer needed or useful, or their owners are no longer interested in or capable of providing care for them either physically or financially. Most unwanted horses will likely be sent to slaughter, with fewer numbers being euthanatized and disposed of through rendering. Still fewer are simply abandoned and left to die of natural causes. Unwanted horses range from being essentially normal, healthy horses of varying ages and breeds to horses with some type of disability or infirmity, horses that are unattractive, horses that fail to meet their owner's expectations for their intended use (e.g., athletic ability), horses that have behavioral problems, or horses that are truly mean or dangerous. In many cases, these horses have had multiple owners, have been shipped from one sale barn, stable, or farm to another, and have ultimately been rejected as ineligible for any sort of responsible, long-term care."

He said there is a lot about the unwanted horse that needs to be discovered in order to better identify horses at risk such as average age and sex, types of things that cause them to be unwanted, and whether they are purebred or grade horses.

Carcass Disposal--Another problem is carcass disposal of horses that die or are euthanatized. Messer said on average, about 1-2% (75,000-150,000) of the seven million domestic horses in the United States went to slaughter each year for the past 10 years. Another 10,000-20,000 horses were exported to Canada each year for slaughter, and an unknown number of horses were sent to Mexico for the same purpose.

For example, in 1997, less than 1.3% of the domestic equine population was sent to slaughter (about 90,000 horses). In comparison, according to the National Animal Health Monitoring System report, in 1997 1.3% of horses aged six months to 20 years (about 80,500 horses) on all premises surveyed either died or were euthanatized. Additionally, 11.1% of horses greater than 20 years of age (about 55,000 horses) on all premises surveyed either died or were euthanatized in 1997.

Total mortality in 1997 then would be about 200,000 horses, or about 3-4% of the total equine population. Messer questioned whether the United States was prepared to handle that number of carcasses if 90,000 had not gone through the slaughter process.

Feral Horses

The session also touched on the feral horses removed from federal lands each year. Robin Lohnes of the American Horse Protection Association discussed the fiscal burdens on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to care for unadopted feral horses removed from public lands. She also discussed the recent line item in the federal appropriations bill that allows feral horses that are greater than 10 years of age or that have not been adopted in three attempts to be sold at public auction (and possibly sent to slaughter).

She noted that according to 2003 BLM statistics, there were 37,186 wild horses and burros on U.S. public range lands. The BLM's five-year plan calls for the removal of 45,000 animals.

Lohnes said the BLM has successfully adopted out more than 190,000 animals since 1978. In fiscal years 2001-2003 alone, the BLM placed 21,541 animals. And as of March 2004, the BLM estimated it had 5,844 animals in preparation or maintenance facilities slated for adoption in 2004.

However, the BLM in February of 2004 had 8,364 animals in short-term holding areas awaiting adoption, 6,993 animals in long-term holding areas, and 5,736 animals in sanctuaries.

Lohnes said the BLM's adoption program "clearly competes" with the general horse industry to place animals, and that ultimately "it can potentially contribute to the plight of the unwanted horse."

Standards of Care

Doug Byars, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, ACVECC, an internal medicine specialist from Lexington, Ky., discussed retirement and adoption farms. The AAEP recently began distributing Care Guidelines for Equine Rescue and Retirement Facilities. Byars thinks there is a need to establish standards of care for equine retirement and adoption farms.

He feels that if equine slaughter is eliminated, it creates problems in identifying an appropriate number of care facilities with adequate funding, educated management for such facilities, and medical staff to care for the horses.

"Well-meaning individuals can quickly get in over their heads, and uneducated animal collectors, uninformed zealots, emotional individuals, and entrepreneurs seeking financial opportunities may increase proportional to the increased population of horses needing to be accommodated on retirement and adoption farms," said Byars.

He stressed the need for certification that looks at not only care of the physical animal, but facility and financial management. He stressed the need to have humane, but practical, means of dealing with horses at life's end.

Veterinarians and Neglect

In the Proceedings book from the Convention, the American Horse Protection Association had pages of listings of groups that assisted horses. During her talk, Lydia F. Gray, DVM, executive director of the Hooved Animal Humane Society in Illinois, said one of those listed groups had been cited by her organization for problems. That underscored the need to have a certification program and continuous checking of the welfare of the horses in various facilities.

Gray said why owners neglect horses are:

  • Ignorance (the owner doesn't understand how to care for the horse);
  • Apathy (the owner doesn't care about caring for the horse);
  • Lifestyle change (the owner has some financial or other problem);
  • Intentional (the owner doesn't want to provide proper care); and
  • Mentally ill (the owner is a collector or hoarder of animals).

She said neglect does not mean a horse that has burrs matted in his mane and tail. That might indicate neglect could happen, but it is not something the law considers neglect. "Simply put, it is withholding of basic needs from a horse: Food, water, shelter, and vet care when needed," she said.

Gray said veterinarians have three options when faced with equine neglect: Educating the owner, reporting the owner to the proper authorities, or doing nothing.

She said if veterinarians want to become actively involved in welfare issues, they need to become educated in the proper way to gather and present evidence in animal welfare cases and the proper way to rehabilitate neglected horses.

More information:

Managing Starved Horses and Working With Officials

"The role of the veterinarian in the community is very important (in equine welfare cases)," said Julie Wilson, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, head of large animal medicine at the University of Minnesota's (UM) College of Veterinary Medicine. "We're perceived as the experts on horse health and advocates for the welfare of the horse. In an ideal scenario, horses that have been seized by humane organization officials and local law enforcement should be evaluated (by a vet) to determine if there's evidence of neglect or abuse, and to educate (owners) on how to take better care of the horses."

Wilson said when a horse's dietary intake fails to meet its energy needs, fat or carbohydrate stores in its body are metabolized (burned for energy). After carbohydrate stores are exhausted, protein catabolism (breakdown for energy) begins, which leads to skeletal muscle wasting and depletion of protein from heart and intestinal tissues.

She and study co-author Drew A. Fitzpatrick, of the Minnesota Hooved Animal Rescue Foundation, wanted to test a protocol for processing and managing a group of severely malnourished horses, and to share those guidelines with other veterinarians. Before the study commenced, they had developed a protocol following a seizure of 45 horses in 2002. In early 2004, Wilson and colleagues treated 12 horses in the hospital from a seizure of 24 horses in Minnesota using that protocol. They had a very positive experience. "We encourage you to participate in similar sorts of activities (use this protocol and work cooperatively with humane organizations and the press)," she said.

The following protocol was used to address the needs of the seized horses:

Notify Liaison--"We've developed a point person in our group--me--and the humane authorities notify me as soon as they know they're doing a seizure," said Wilson. "We check to see if stall space is available at the hospital, let the staff know when they're going to arrive, and find out if there is any reason to do any isolation or immediate first aid. We make sure there are enough people to process the horses."

Identify Animals--Wilson said each seized horse is marked with livestock crayons or a neck tag. All animal handling is done as quietly as possible to minimize stress, particularly since these horses often have been handled only minimally. "An expert horse handler has been very helpful in getting these horses loaded and brought to us and in helping us that first day to get that initial work done on them," said Wilson. "It does take expertise to do that kind of handling."

Weigh Animals--Animals are weighed on a digital scale or their weights are estimated with a weight tape.

Prepare Stalls--Wilson puts seized horses in an aisle adjacent to the main hospital area that is typically used for respiratory cases. Since there is less traffic on this aisle, the horses are less stressed. The stalls are well-bedded and horses are offered fresh water immediately upon entering the stalls. "Many times we put two horses per stall to minimize social stress," Wilson added.

Take Disinfection Precautions--Disinfectant-impregnated foot mats are placed outside the stall doors as precautionary infectious disease control measures.

Examination--The ages of the animals are estimated based on their teeth, and the skin is examined for ectoparasites (i.e., lice), dermatophyte infections (caused by parasites that infest the skin), or wounds. Results are reported on a form. "Try to triage, noting any immediate abnormalities and body condition score," said Wilson.

Photograph Animals--Each animal is digitally photographed; the images include a full lateral body shot, a head-on view showing facial markings, and any visible abnormalities. "These are useful for persuading juries that the horse owners were negligent," she said.

Medical Decision on Salvageability--"A horse is considered non-salvageable if it has evidence of a chronic and incurable disease that causes discomfort, if it is a hazard to itself or the handlers because of neurologic deficits, or if it has a hopeless prognosis for life," said Wilson. If the horse is not salvageable, permission is requested from custodial authorities to euthanatize it. Horses deemed salvageable have their blood taken and tested for disease or any metabolic problems.

Assess Parasite Load--Fecal flotation is performed to assess the animal's parasite burden and its possible contribution to poor body condition.

Design a Diet--"It is important to determine what they've been eating when you get them," said Wilson. "If they have been receiving nothing, give them handfuls every hour of good-quality grass hay for the first day. Restrict hay access for horses who have had some poor-quality hay (hang a hay net outside the bars of the stall)."

Groom Animals (this is sometimes done the next day)--The horse is gently groomed to remove filth, burrs, and matted hair.

Monitor Animals--The horses are carefully monitored for signs of colic or tachypnea (rapid or shallow breathing). If the latter is observed, stall fans are hung to improve air circulation.

The day after the horses arrive at the clinic, they should be treated for any apparent ectoparasites if they are in stable condition. A day later they are dewormed with half-doses of fenbendazole. Wilson reminds veterinarians to pregnancy-check mares "as this impacts some of the future decisions in trying to place them in foster homes."

Subsequent care involves re-evaluating each horse daily and seeing how they do. If horses develop limb edema (fluid swelling), they should be walked.

Grain or concentrates should never be fed until Day 4. "We use a half-pound of Equine Senior twice a day and gradually increase that to three pounds per feeding," she said. If the horses are well, caretakers begin feeding them three times per day. There were minimal complications when re-feeding starved horses this way.

Wilson warned that re-feeding syndrome can happen if horses are given too many calories too quickly. This is a metabolic crisis characterized by acute electrolyte and fluid shifts (as well as major swings in blood glucose levels) that occur during nutritional repletion of animals that have experienced significant suboptimal calorie intake. Typically the syndrome is observed in the first three days of re-feeding. Clinical signs of re-feeding syndrome include respiratory failure, heart failure, arrhythmia, seizures, coma, and sudden death.

Once the horses begin gaining weight, Wilson says they are dewormed using ivermectin with praziquantel. Their feet are trimmed, but any elective procedures (including vaccinations) should wait until body condition improves. Humane officers should get frequent updates on the horses.

Wilson says that the media has become a partner with the university due to the 2002 and 2004 seizures. "It does increase public awareness of equine health needs," she said. "This has been excellent PR for the vet hospital. We get permission from county and humane officials before granting media interviews, photos, or filming. You should restrict comments to factual statements regarding the horse's condition (refrain from publicly judging the horse's owner or divulging the person's identity)."

Additionally, the cases have helped Wilson's team forge a solid working relationship with local hooved animal rescues.

Observations Wilson made during the 2004 seizure with the 12 horses stabled at UM included:

  • Tachypnea was often seen by Day 2, probably due to increased metabolic rate, long winter coats, and the warmer temperatures and humidity of indoor stabling.
  • Most of the horses had low hematocrit levels (of oxygen-carrying blood cells).
  • Three horses had decreased serum albumin (which maintains plasma pressure, and low serum albumin can indicate liver disease and malnutrition).
  • "We had astounding weight gains for a majority of the animals--up to 10 pounds per day on just hay," said Wilson.
  • Four horses had to be euthanatized due to extremely poor prognoses.

While there were no recumbent horses in this group, some of the most debilitated ones were managed at the farm, where a sling helped them to their feet on several days. Those horses fully recovered. "If a horse is down for more than 48 hours, his prognosis is guarded," she noted.

The university hospital has been charging full price to care for seized horses. With the staff and resources this type of situation demands, it is not economical to discount services. Wilson encourages area residents to donate to the local humane society.

Wilson encourages facilities to be available for seizure situations such as these. "We felt our systematic approach was beneficial and worked well," she said. "We had very good outcomes. Our humane officials thought our interest in this was wonderful. It has been a very emotionally rewarding process as well, and we've fulfilled our mission of being the advocate of the horse."

More information:


AAEP Position on Horse Slaughter in the United States,


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