Vets could be vital to communications should exotic horse diseases enter Britain – study


Horse owners in Britain may be more likely to respond to directives from their veterinarian than the government should an exotic disease outbreak occur, researchers report.

The findings of the study, reported this week in the journal BMC Veterinary Research, were based on the analysis of 423 responses from horse owners and caregivers to an online questionnaire.

The Royal Veterinary College researchers said that attitudes towards the role of the wider horse industry — for example, veterinary surgeons and the government — varied depending on the level of trust and confidence in their actions.

“Some horse owners described a discrepancy between regulations implemented by the government and the actual efficacy of these protocols, with some feeling that the government would not assist in the event of an equine disease outbreak,” Kelsey Spence and her colleagues reported.

The uncertain political climate at the time of the questionnaire, during Brexit negotiations, may have increased the negative views towards the government’s involvement, they suggested.

“Negative attitudes towards the government have also been demonstrated in other livestock industries, with some farmers attributing blame for past epidemics and others feeling sceptical about the advice they provided.

“Despite the lack of confidence in the government, participating horse owners felt supported by their veterinary surgeon and named them as trusted sources of advice about disease prevention.

“This suggests that in the event of an exotic disease incursion, horse owners may be more inclined to follow directives from their veterinary practice compared to the government.”

A positive relationship between horse owners and their veterinary surgeon would also benefit those who felt they lacked knowledge of exotic diseases, the study team said, since their veterinary surgeon could act as a resource.

The authors point out that the potential for an exotic disease incursion is a significant concern for the British equine industry.

They said that horse owners’ perceptions of, and attitudes towards, exotic diseases can influence decisions to adopt disease preparedness strategies.

The study team found that attitudes towards exotic disease risk were summarised into four categories:

  • Responsible horse owners prevent disease;
  • Horse owners need support to stop disease spread;
  • Risk depends on proximity to the “risky” horse; and
  • Some risk is inevitable.

Responsible horse owners were perceived as those who were aware of health hazards and took actions to protect their horses from disease.

However, reliance on others, including stakeholders, to uphold disease prevention in the community led to some owners feeling vulnerable to disease threats.

When evaluating risk, horse owners considered which horses were the “riskiest” to their horse’s health. These included horses that travelled, participated in competitions, or were simply unfamiliar. Owners avoided situations where they could interact.

Despite undertaking disease prevention measures, the perceived uncontrollable nature of exotic diseases led some owners to feel an incursion was inevitable.

In conclusion, the authors said recommendations to increase preparedness may be ineffective unless horse owners’ perceptions and attitudes were taken into account.

“Improved communication among stakeholders in the industry may assist in clarifying expectations for exotic disease-specific prevention measures.

“A collaborative approach among horse owners and stakeholders is recommended to improve disease preparedness within the industry.”

The full study team comprised Kelsey Spence, Jacqueline Cardwell, Josh Slater, and Sarah Rosanowski.

Preliminary insight into horse owners’ perceptions of, and attitudes towards, exotic diseases in the United Kingdom
Kelsey L. Spence, Jacqueline M. Cardwell, Josh Slater, and Sarah M. Rosanowski
BMC Veterinary Research volume 15, Article number: 338 (2019)

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here.

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