The study indicated that welfare issues concerning emotional state or behaviour are at risk of being omitted from end-of-life decisions. H&H speaks to researchers and welfare experts to find out more
The preliminary study, Attitudes of the equestrian public towards equine end of life decisions, by equine behaviourists Catherine Bell and Suzanne Rogers of the Equine Behaviour Training Association, published this month in Animals, aimed to understand what factors owners consider when making the decision to put a horse down.
The survey, which was completed by 160 people, contained 30 scenarios based on the “five freedoms” – a welfare framework that considers hunger, discomfort, pain, ability to express normal behaviour and fear, and can be used to inform end-of-life decisions.
Results showed participants were most likely to consider euthanasia for physical issues such as lameness, and only a small number of responses included consideration of ethological or mental health factors such as depression or stress following the loss of a companion, suggesting welfare issues concerning emotional state or behaviour are at risk of being omitted from end-of-life decisions.
Dr Bell told H&H the results did not surprise her but added that it is concerning if owners are not factoring in emotional issues at all.
“We’re not suggesting the minute your horse looks a bit miserable you should be putting him or her down but at the same time if your horse has looked miserable for a long time, even if there is no physical reason, this is something that should be looked at,” she said.
“An awful lot of horses are in these chronic low-level welfare situations, where euthanasia is not the obvious decision but it probably should be considered, even if it’s not necessarily carried out, because an alternative solution can be found.”
Dr Bell said she believes the topic of euthanasia should be discussed more.
“We put the results on social media and received comments from owners who had put down horses without an obvious physical issue, and experienced negativity from people perceiving them to have put down a healthy horse. But actually it was an unhappy horse with a poor quality of life and that’s what people should be thinking about,” she said. “It’s not always a catastrophic physical factor that makes the decision obvious.”
Social scientist Tamzin Furtado, whose work includes looking at horse-human relationships and human behaviour change, told H&H it is interesting that owners focus on horses ’ physical over mental health, but agreed this was not surprising.
“We do consistently find that,” she said. “I guess partly it’s a bit more tangible to say a horse is five tenths lame than saying a horse is five tenths depressed. But also a horse might be depressed because of its physical health, so often it’s hard to extricate ‘is the horse in pain, or depressed, or are these age-related changes?’”
Research has shown that delayed euthansia remains one of the biggest welfare concerns affecting horses in the UK and Dr Furtado said the “key” is to look at how owners can be helped to make decisions.
“Every horse is an individual so you can never have a scale that will work in every situation. It’s the most difficult decision we have to make as owners so we need to look at how we can help people to do that in a way that is respectful of their individual horse and gives them objectivity,” she said.
“Euthanasia is that difficult thing that no one wants to think about it in advance. Even when it comes to surveys on the topic, people often don’t want to take part in them unless they’ve had experience of it before – they don’t want to think about it, which is understandable but hard because you need to prepare.”
World Horse Welfare’s head of welfare support Sam Chubbock told H&H previous research has shown that only one in eight horses die of natural causes, so in most cases a decision to euthanise will have to be made.
“In these cases, physical decline is an obvious area to assess, but a horse’s mental state is just as important to consider and we need more research on how to best assess this,” she said.
“Making end-of-life decisions at the right time is a heavy responsibility for owners, and World Horse Welfare welcomes any research around this complex and important topic to support owners.”
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