Pain/Stress in Horses: Owners, Trainers Might Be the Best Detectives

Owners and trainers might be the best resource of information for veterinarians evaluating pain in horses because they are most likely to be familiar with the horse's normal relaxed behavior and mannerisms, according to a researcher from Colorado State University (CSU).

These individuals sometimes can pick out abnormal behaviors that might indicate the horse is in pain--such as signs of stress--better than veterinarians who are not as familiar with the horse's typical behavior, according to Ann Wagner, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVA, ACVP, a professor of veterinary clinical sciences at CSU, who recently reviewed published content on the topic to determine the effect of stress on equine pain.

"There is no 'gold standard' for assessing pain in horses," said Wagner. She added that researchers have developed different pain scales that focus on different sources of pain (orthopedic, gastrointestinal, or laminitis, for example) to determine if a horse is in pain and to what degree.

"Many of the signs of pain mentioned in various pain scales are changes in behaviors that can be detected by owners," she said. She cited behaviors that are sometimes associated with pain in horses, such as restlessness/agitation, decreased interactive behavior (responsiveness to people and surroundings), reluctance to move, sweating, kicking at the abdomen, pawing, changes in appetite, and lameness. Many of these also can indicate that the horse is stressed, which likely has an impact on the horse's pain level, she noted.

In her review Wagner found that stress might intensify the horse's perception of pain. Trying to reduce stressors and make the horse as comfortable as possible, therefore, might help reduce the horse's perceived pain.

Wagner recommended that when working with painful horses, owners should do "common-sense things like remaining calm and minimizing activity and noise where the horse is" to help minimize stress. She also suggested speaking in soothing tones, rubbing or patting the horse if it is generally pleasurable for them, or offering the horse a distraction such as a small amount of feed to reduce his stress.

She added, "If the horse isn't already in its own stall but can be moved, put it back in its stall or (move him to) familiar surroundings. Don't let other horses annoy the patient, but if the company of another horse is calming, keep (one) nearby or in sight."

Wagner offered some tips for handlers to consider if a horse appears to be experiencing pain:

  • Have a veterinarian examine the horse;
  • Keep the horse calm and minimize stress; and
  • Depending on the circumstances (for instance, sudden acute lameness), don't move the horse until a veterinarian has examined him.

The review, "Effects of stress on pain in horses and incorporating pain scales for equine practice," was published in the December 2010 issue of Veterinary Clinics of North America: Equine Practice. The abstract is available on PubMed.

About the Author

Marie Rosenthal, MS

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