Welfare concerns for world’s working equines over Covid-19 pandemic

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The pandemic has not been easy on the world's working animals, or their owners.
The pandemic has not been easy on the world’s working animals, or their owners. Photo: World Horse Welfare

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant effect on families around the world that use horses, ponies, donkeys and mules for their livelihood, with knock-on effects for animal welfare, researchers report.

The ground-breaking study highlighted welfare concerns, after finding that more than 75% of those reliant on working horses around the world see a negative effect from the pandemic.

“Many of the large numbers of people who need their horses, donkeys and mules to work are already living on low or very low incomes and have little in reserve when that work isn’t available,” said Izzy Wild, who is programme officer in the international department at the charity World Horse Welfare and lead author of the study.

“We quickly started seeing impacts on both the people and their equids in the different projects around the world that World Horse Welfare was involved with when Covid-19 hit and so we set out to determine just what the implications were on these people and the animals they rely on.”

The result was a collaborative study between World Horse Welfare and the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, University of Nottingham, the findings of which have been published in the journal Animals.

From the more than 1500 responses received from 14 countries across Latin America, Africa and Asia surveyed at the end of 2020, 60% of families relying on working equids were working less and nearly 80% had suffered a decrease in household income.

Compared to pre-pandemic levels, the majority of equids were also working less as the pandemic affected working patterns, and equid-derived income and total household income had also decreased. The day-to-day costs of caring for the working animals during that time, however, had remained the same or even increased.

Responses from the survey showed that equid welfare had been impacted variably across the different projects and countries and, in some, animal condition actually improved because they were rested and not working as hard as they normally would.

Others had lost weight as their owners were no longer able to afford the necessary feed required and, long term, it is considered likely that the equids will suffer, with seasonal changes requiring more food and prolonged loss of income to the owners combining to create a significant welfare issue if the pandemic continues to affect the ability of the owners to generate income.

World Horse Welfare is actively seeking to collaborate with other animal non-governmental organisations, humanitarian organisations and governments to try to reduce the effects of some of these issues, as many of these communities have been marginalised and do not have the support they need.

“We are working with each of the individual teams and targeting interventions based on each of their project’s results. Some of these are under way, for example in Mexico, owners had a negative outlook as a result of the effects of market closures and decreased income, and a number of equids were in poor condition,” Wild said.

In Mexico, 100 of the equids in the poorest body condition were selected for feed and veterinary relief over a three-month period, with owners and carers receiving additional support and feed provisions/vet care.

The body condition of the animals was monitored throughout to confirm if the animals were gaining, maintaining or losing weight, and a further questionnaire will be used at the end of the intervention to ensure that the work is impactful.

“We hope that the results of this survey will make an impact and ensure that the equid owner/carers and equids get the help they clearly need at this very challenging time and we know that the situation will need to be monitored as it continues to assess if animal welfare deteriorates and if so, to intervene in time.”

World Horse Welfare works providing hands-on equine health and welfare care to working equids around the world and currently has projects in all 14 of the countries surveyed, ranging across Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Working equines lead demanding lives working in exhausting conditions, which can cause a wide range of health and welfare problems, including illness, injury and disease. Many of the projects help to provide primary first aid care for equines in the field and at local centres.

The study was a team effort between World Horse Welfare staff in Britain, partner organisations around the world, and the University of Nottingham. All those involved thanked the equid owners around the world who gave up their time to answer the survey questions.

Wild, I.; Gedge, A.; Burridge, J.; Burford, J. The Impact of COVID-19 on the Working Equid Community: Responses from 1530 Individuals Accessing NGO Support in 14 Low- and Middle-Income Countries. Animals 202111, 1363. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11051363

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

Earlier Horsetalk report

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