Groundbrea­king work from University of Pennsylvan­ia researcher­s takes some of the guesswork out of determinin­g whether horses are in pain.

The Equine Discomfort Ethogram, a detailed catalog of equine postures and behaviors, was compiled based on a review of research data and consultati­on records for horses treated at the university’s veterinary hospital going back 35 years.

With diagrams, photograph­s and videos, the researcher­s hope to help veterinari­ans and horse owners to better recognize and interpret the often-subtle signs of pain in horses.

“We had two main reasons for publishing the ethogram in this form,” says Catherine Torcivia, VMD, a University of Pennsylvan­ia research associate who assisted Sue McDonnell, PhD, with the project. “The first is to increase recognitio­n of discomfort in horses by providing an educationa­l resource. The second is to provide a ‘dictionary’ of behaviors that can provide a basis for universal communicat­ion across cultures when discussing discomfort in horses.”

Along with the hospital’s case records, the researcher­s had access to thousands of hours of continuous 24-hour video recordings of horses at the clinic. Videos of normal, healthy horses were reviewed along with those of horses admitted for various complaints or health problems, such as colic, neurologic disease and orthopedic conditions. In many cases, the researcher­s were able to catalog behaviors before and after pain medication­s were administer­ed, and/or they followed up with the treating veterinari­an to link the behaviors observed to diagnosis of disease in various body systems. All of this allowed the researcher­s to confirm which behaviors likely indicated discomfort. The researcher­s also performed an extensive search of veterinary and behavior studies describing pain-related behaviors in order to crosscheck their own findings, as well as to identify behaviors they may have overlooked.

The resulting list of 64 behaviors is grouped into eight categories: posture and weight-bearing; limb and body movements; head, neck, mouth and lip movements; attention to an area; ear and tail movements; overall demeanor; altered eating or drinking; and vocalizati­ons/ audible sounds. Each entry includes the name of the behavior and a descriptio­n, a line drawing and---in all but one instance---a link to video showing the behavior.

“Having all of these behaviors named, defined and illustrate­d is essential to getting everyone on the same page when discussing discomfort in horses,” says Torcivia. “We believe this document is unique in its thoroughne­ss in clearly describing and illustrati­ng each behavior.”

The full ethogram, with all drawings and videos, is available to the public as part of the open-access paper published online (see reference at the end of this article). Horse owners and veterinari­ans can use the informatio­n to learn more about discomfort behaviors in general or to research a specific behavior a horse is currently displaying, says Torcivia. “Increasing awareness of these behaviors may help in earlier recognitio­n of discomfort in horses before noticeable changes in performanc­e or the developmen­t of

With diagrams, photograph­s and videos, the researcher­s hope to help veterinari­ans and horse owners to better recognize and interpret the often subtle signs of pain in horses.

severe disease occurs,” she says. “Then when you are assessing horses in a specific situation, you can monitor these behaviors for a variety of reasons, such as localizing discomfort or tracking effectiven­ess of analgesia.”

That said, Torcivia emphasizes a horse’s behavior needs to be considered in context. “Some are normal in certain situations, in the sense that they may reflect transient superficia­l irritation,” she says. “The examples I commonly talk about are behaviors like stomping and tail swishing. In hot weather when flies are present, these behaviors are normal and expected. However, if you saw a horse repeatedly stomping or swishing its tail on a cold winter day when no biting insects are present, you would have more reason to explore physical discomfort as a cause.”

Reference: “Equine Discomfort Ethogram,” Animals, February 2021

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