The pros and cons of equine artificial insemination

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    Artificial insemination, or AI, is becoming increasingly commonplace. Although there is a code of practice — produced by the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) — AI is unregulated by the government, so the whole system relies, to a great extent, on owners’ compliance and trust.

    Although the code of practice is available to all, many owners may not be fully conversant with the content or how to get it, and struggle to piece together the pros and cons when considering AI. As the process grows in popularity, so the options available need proper consideration.

    “I cringe when owners think it’s a cheaper alternative to natural breeding,” says equine breeding expert vet Dr Jonathan Pycock. “It requires a high degree of technical input and can quite often end up more expensive than natural covering.”

    Any broodmare being prepared for AI needs to be monitored carefully. Insemination needs to take place when she is close to ovulating, at the end of her season, so it’s useful to know her cycle pattern before you start any AI programme.

    If you are considering using AI for your mare, check with your vet that they are experienced in the procedure, and if not, ask if they can refer you to another practice for advice. (BEVA holds a list of practices with a special interest in AI.)

    Reasons to use artificial insemination

    • If the stallion is competing, the breeding season would interrupt his schedule
    • The stallion is abroad or too far away to make natural covering viable
    • A stallion has died but semen was frozen for use after his death
    • A gelding has performed well and semen was frozen prior to castration
    • To obtain better/different bloodlines for a rare breed — and to encourage its geographical spread

    Frozen or chilled semen

    Sometimes only frozen semen will be available, but if there is a choice, AI expert vet Chris Shepherd from Willesley Equine Clinic advises that chilled is best.

    “By choice, we would always work with chilled semen because the examination times aren’t so stringent and conception rates are slightly higher,” he says. “With frozen semen, we aim to inseminate within 6hr of ovulation, so the timing is critical and requires a lot of monitoring, which can be quite onerous. We charge more for frozen semen.”

    How the semen will be delivered can cause problems. Often the delivery is sent with a conventional courier, who will not deliver on Saturday, Sunday or bank holidays, so two days of a mare’s season may effectively be “lost”. Frozen semen can be stored by your vet, but chilled must be sent as your mare is ready to inseminate.

    “With only Monday-Friday delivery, if the mare needs inseminating at the weekend it’s virtually impossible to get semen from abroad,” says Chris Shepherd. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get round that — even within the UK it’s difficult, unless the mare owner is prepared to get in the car and drive frantically to collect it, which most are. One of the advantages of frozen semen is that you can get it on site well ahead of the mare.”

    Potential problems

    AI with chilled or frozen semen generally has a lower success rate than natural covering. So as well as deciding on the right stallion, there are several ways of improving the chances of success. Use good-quality semen, an experienced vet and a fertile mare, and results can be almost as good as with natural covering.

    Although AI increases the choice of stallions, it also brings with it a risk of disease, particularly Equine Viral Arteritis (EVA). EVA is a viral venereal disease and there is much concern that it may enter this country in semen imported for AI, so it is important to ensure your mare or stallion is clear.

    “EVA is much more prevalent in mainland Europe than the UK — which is attempting to maintain a disease-free status,” explains Dr Pycock. “Were the disease to enter the UK, the effects would potentially be devastating, as the horse population would be very susceptible to its effects.”

    • For a copy of BEVA’s code of practice or a list of recommended vet practices, e-mail info@beva.org.uk, visit: www.beva.org.uk or tel: 01223 636970

    This article was first published in Horse & Hound

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