How do we assess quality of life in elderly or unwell horses?

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Researchers say current welfare assessment tools could be adapted to better reflect a horse's view on its quality of life.
Image by F. Muhammad

Currently available welfare assessment tools could be adapted to create a quality-of-life protocol, which could help in making end-of-life decisions, a review has found.

Equine quality of life is important in decision-making in veterinary medicine, Mariessa Long and her colleagues wrote in the journal Animals. It is especially relevant for chronically ill or aged horses when euthanasia is considered.

“Despite its relevance, however, there is no one universally accepted definition of equine quality of life.”

The researchers, with the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, defined equine quality of life as an individual’s subjective evaluation of their life, involving a balance of positive and negative experiences of emotions.

Different factors can influence an animal’s quality of life, such as the fulfilment of its needs, health, social relationships, control and choice. How much an individual’s quality of life is influenced by something also depends on the individual’s preferences, personality and experiences in their life so far.

It is not required for the horse to be thinking about their life to have a quality of life. It is sufficient, they said, for the horse to have “a sense of well-being”, which may or may not include cognitive evaluations of their life experiences.

Deciding on treatment or euthanasia for chronically ill or geriatric horses requires humans to take responsibility. “Such a decision always comes with an implicit idea of what it means for a horse to have a good life,” they said. This will likely also consider what the future holds for the horse.

“To our knowledge,” they said, “there is no assessment tool for chronically ill or aged horses that assesses equine quality of life, defined as the horse’s evaluation of their life.” However, tools exist to assess equine welfare in different contexts.

In their paper, the review team looked at how currently available equine welfare, quality of life, well-being and happiness assessment tools define and attempt to measure these concepts.

The authors carried out a systematic search of published papers. A total of 862 records were initially identified, but 549 were excluded after screening abstracts and titles. The remaining 65 were read in full.

Fourteen publications were identified that described 10 equine welfare assessment tools and one approach to assessing equine quality of life in veterinary practice.

“In order to be suitable for quality-of-life assessments for chronically ill or geriatric horses, the currently available welfare assessment tools that were analysed for this paper would require some adjustments,” they found.

“When it comes to informing end-of-life decisions regarding a chronically ill or geriatric horse, most welfare assessment tools do not sufficiently satisfy the requirements of prioritising the subjective mental experience of the horse, of integrating criteria into one overall grade, or of focusing on long-term as opposed to momentary states.”

One of the protocols, a welfare assessment tool for free-roaming horses based on the Five Domains Model, is a promising candidate for an equine quality-of-life assessment tool, they said. “However, this tool would require an adjustment to chronically ill and geriatric horses and their long-term mental states, as well as the establishment of one overall grade.”

The review team noted that the different welfare assessment tools covered a range of parameters that are potential factors of quality of life, looking at aspects of palliative care, monitoring quality of life, and any changes in response to interventions aimed to sustain or improve a horse’s life.

“For the future, further parameters focused on the mental state of the horse and parameters specifically for chronically ill or geriatric horses should be developed and included in quality-of-life assessment tools.”

Their investigations also revealed that there is no strict division between the assessment of welfare and quality of life. This, they said, highlights the importance of providing a definition of the targeted concept of any assessment tool.

“Some of them have the potential to inform the development of a quality-of-life assessment tool supporting well-considered decision making towards the end of horses’ lives,” they concluded. However, they would need to be adjusted to focus on the horses’ experiences, to provide an overall grade of quality of life, and be tailored to chronically ill or geriatric horses.

The review team comprised Long, Christian Dürnberger, Florien Jenner, Zsófia Kelemen, Ulrike Auer and Herwig Grimm.

Long, M.; Dürnberger, C.; Jenner, F.; Kelemen, Z.; Auer, U.; Grimm, H. Quality of Life within Horse Welfare Assessment Tools: Informing Decisions for Chronically Ill and Geriatric Horses. Animals 2022, 12, 1822. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani12141822

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

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