The effectiveness of horse branding is a hit and miss affair, Austrian researchers suggest.
Their findings cast doubt on assertions by many horse breeders who claim branding represents the best method for identifying their horses.
The research was carried out amid growing concerns around evidence suggesting branding foals causes the animals stress.
Although the debate over branding has raged for some time, Austrian researchers went off on a different tack, posing the question: how reliably can brand marks be read later?
Jörg and Christine Aurich, at the University of Veterinary Medicine, in Vienna, conducted a study on brand recognition, the findings of which have just been made available online in “The Veterinary Journal”.
Brands on horses in Europe often combine a symbol to indicate the particular breed with a two-digit number to identify the individual animal.
To assess the readability of the markings, the researchers asked three experienced people to record the brands of about 250 horses participating in an equestrian tournament in Germany.
All three testers were able to recognize the breed symbols on about 90 per cent of the animals, and for about 84 per cent of the animals the symbol was recorded correctly by all three people.
However, the situation for the two-digit numbers was dramatically different. While each of the three readers read the numbers correctly on about half of the horses, the correct number was recorded by all three of them for less than 40 per cent of the animals.
To assess the legibility of brand marking under “ideal” conditions, the researchers examined the markings on 28 horses that had been euthanized, in each case for reasons not related to branding.
Surprisingly, the brand marks could be clearly identified on only nine of the animals, while for six horses neither the brand symbol nor the two-digit number could be deciphered even after the site of branding (generally the left thigh but in two cases the left side of the neck) had been shaved.
This finding confirmed the unreliability of marking horses by branding.
At the same time, the researchers naturally examined the sites where the horses had been branded for evidence of tissue damage. Nearly all of the horses had tissue changes at the branding sites, consistent with having experienced a third-degree thermal injury.
Professor Jörg Aurich said: “Branding is clearly associated with local tissue damage and the markings are often insufficiently clear to be decoded, even by experienced observers or after the horse has died. There really isn’t any reason to continue to mark horses in this outdated way.”
The pair acknowledged there were many reasons why it was important to be able to identify farm animals, horses and small companion animals.
Unique identification marks were essential for ensuring the correctness of breeding programmes, for preventing the spread of disease and for eliminating the possibility of deceit in competitions or when animals are sold, they said.
Until recently, horses were generally branded, but following concerns that the practice was unnecessarily cruel there has been a gradual switch to microchips in several major horse-breeding nations.
Branding, they note, has essentially been discontinued in the European Union, although several countries still accept it and breed registries claim that this traditional method is perfectly satisfactory and obviates the need for costly equipment.
The paper “Readability of branding symbols in horses and histomorphological alterations at the branding site” by Jörg Aurich, Peter Wohlsein, Manuela Wulf, Marina Nees, Wolfgang Baumgärtner, Mareike Becker-Birck and Christine Aurich has just been published online in “The Veterinary Journal”. The field work was carried at the Graf Lehndorff Institute for Equine Science, a joint research unit of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, Austria, and the Brandenburg State Stud at Neustadt (Dosse), Germany. The post mortem analysis was performed at the Department of Pathology, University of Veterinary Medicine, Hanover, Germany.
Abstract of the scientific article is available online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tvjl.2012.07.006