Few international guidelines exist that provide recommendations for caring for horses kept for the production of medicines, researchers say.
An international team of scientists have produced a series of recommendations for ensuring the welfare of horses used for industrial blood serum or urine production.
Xavier Manteca Vilanova and his colleagues, in a commentary published in the journal Animals, noted that various pharmaceutical products have been derived from horse blood and urine for more than a century.
“Production of biologics and therapeutics from these samples is a niche industry and often occurs in regions with little regulation or veterinary oversight,” they noted.
“While horses have been used in the manufacturing process of biologics for many years, their welfare has only recently surfaced as a concern,” they said.
To ensure good welfare of these horses, they set about developing suitable industry guidance.
Horses, they said, are deemed particularly useful for producing therapeutics for human use because of their relatively large blood (or urine) volume, which can be collected repeatedly and used for antibody, hormone, or other protein isolation, and because of their general ease in handling and maintenance.
“Except for pregnant mare urine and snake antivenom production, there are no international or industry guidelines for much of the work conducted to obtain medical substances from horses,” they said. The authors also noted a lack of guidance around any foals produced as a result of pregnancy.
The World Health Organization has general guidelines for snake antivenom production, but the emphasis is on the safety of substances being produced for human use rather than on animal welfare.
The authors noted that the use of pregnant mares for urine (PMU) collection and estrogen production has received animal activist attention in the past because of concerns about insufficient attention to welfare.
In Canada, for example, the industry revised practices and expectations for farms managing horses, and PMU production is currently overseen by the Equine Ranching Advisory Board in Canada. Adherence is mandatory for participating horse ranches.
The authors noted that, in general, Western society, and in particular veterinary practitioners, remain largely unaware of the use of horses for extraction of substances for use in this sphere.
“These are niche industries involving relatively small numbers of horses (tens of thousands) compared to the millions of horses that exist within the multi-billion-dollar global equine industry.”
In the distant past, pharmaceutical companies normalized the use of horses for serum collection by releasing movies or images of hygienic conditions on farms or in research facilities to the public.
“Attention from animal activist groups has made farms and various industries reluctant to discuss their challenges more broadly.
“Regardless of the numbers of horses involved, it is essential that guidelines be in place to ensure the care and well-being of these animals that are so essential to human health and animal production industries.”
In their guidelines, the researchers traversed animal welfare and ethical considerations, husbandry and care considerations, horse procurement, housing, social contact, exercise, feeding, transport, identification, handling, training, veterinary attention and hoof care, and euthanasia.
They also covered collection procedures and welfare issues around the quantities procured.
“Until such time as non-animal origins can be found for certain products, use of the horse is likely to continue. The value of these horses, as well as their sentience, makes it important that producers ensure the best welfare using programs such as the one described in this paper.”
The authors comprised Vilanova, who is with the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain; Bonnie Beaver, with Texas A&M University; Mette Uldahl, with the Vejle Equine Practice in Denmark; and Patricia Turner, with Global Animal Welfare & Training in Wilmington, Massachusetts, and the University of Guelph in Canada.
Manteca Vilanova, X.; Beaver, B.; Uldahl, M.; Turner, P.V. Recommendations for Ensuring Good Welfare of Horses Used for Industrial Blood, Serum, or Urine Production. Animals 2021, 11, 1466. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11051466
The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here.