Don't Forget About Working Equids

A donkey can increase a family’s income by up to 500%.

Photo: iStock

Out of sight, out of mind. This is often the harsh reality for working equids, while owners and veterinarians in developed countries are busy caring for their own horses. But, argues Derek Knottenbelt, DVM&S, Dipl. ECEIM, MRCVS, these animals serve a very important role across the world and need our attention.

A longtime equitarian (volunteer veterinarian on trips to developed countries) and professor of Equine Medicine at the University of Glasgow School of Veterinary Science, in Scotland, Knottenbelt described the working equid’s plight as well as importance during the 2015 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, held Dec. 5-9 in Las Vegas.

His philosophy, he said, is that by improving working animals’ welfare, we are in turn relieving human burden.

More than 100 million families in rural communities worldwide depend on working equids for transportation, farming, economic value, and social value. “They play a fundamental role in individual family prosperity and in the local and national economics,” Knottenbelt said. “Indeed, it could be said that if the working horse or donkey were to be removed from society, the economy of the world would collapse.”

Unlike in the Western World, however, where equids generally come at a high price and enjoy quality veterinary care and legislative protection, working equids aren’t blessed with trained veterinarians, well-educated owners, or government support. They’re victim to ill-fitting harnesses, malnutrition, and preventable diseases, such as tetanus and rabies.

This is not, however, because their owners don’t care about them. “A donkey can increase a family’s income by up to 500%,” Knottenbelt said, so it’s in a family’s best interest to keep it healthy. It’s because they’re caring for these animals the only way they know how, while doing all they can to care for themselves.

So what can veterinarians from developed countries do to help?

Due to financial, practical, and geographical constraints, said Knottenbelt, we need to focus on the efforts that will have the most effect.

“Simply offering advice will not bring sustainable change,” he said, adding that “primary first aid” won’t in itself make much of an impact either. What’s the long-term advantage, for instance, of deworming a donkey who lives in a worm-riddled environment? Primary care does provide a window of opportunity to gain access to owners for a chance to educate and advise, he said.

Knottenbelt instead puts the focus on controlling epidemic or fatal diseases. “Vaccination programs for tetanus, rabies, and African horse sickness will make a significant difference in the horse population,” he said.

And in countries like Ethiopia, where the contagious fungal infection epizootic lymphangitis contributes to massive loss of use in working equids, Knottenbelt said government-supported euthanasia programs can and have significantly reduced case numbers. This is challenging, he added, due to cultural and religious aversions to euthanasia.

Lastly, “education is probably the most basic requirement,” said Knottenbelt. Things as simple as teaching a farmer how to properly harness his donkey can go a long way toward keeping that donkey in work.

Overall, “We need to identify specific local needs and encourage government support and development of equine veterinarians,” he said.

About the Author

Alexandra Beckstett, The Horse Managing Editor

Alexandra Beckstett, Managing Editor of The Horse and a native of Houston, Texas, is a lifelong horse owner who has shown successfully on the national hunter/jumper circuit and dabbled in hunter breeding. After graduating from Duke University, she joined Blood-Horse Publications as Assistant Editor of its book division, Eclipse Press, before joining The Horse.

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