But people are not always able to interpret correctly the signs of pain displayed by horses and donkeys. After all, having evolved as prey animals, it is in their interest not to show signs of pain that might bring them to the attention of a predator looking for its next meal.
Dr Thijs van Loon and colleagues at the faculty of veterinary medicine of Utrecht University have been researching pain recognition in horses. Their work resulted in the development of composite pain scales that the researchers showed could be used to accurately measure pain in horses as well as donkeys.
Such scales generally comprise several indicators, including behavoural parameters (such as lying down, rolling and scratching), physiological variables, (heart rate and respiratory rate), and facial expressions, (positioning and movement of the ears, nostrils, eyelids, and mouth).
These signs are particularly useful for detecting pain or discomfort in patients suffering from colic, facial or orthopaedic pain.
Assessment methods developed in the studies have now been distilled into an App, the Equine Pain and Welfare App (EPWA), which provides a reliable way to recognise pain and calculate a pain score.
The App guides the user through a two-minute pain assessment based on facial expressions or a five-minute assessment of body language. Users are advised to contact a veterinarian for horses scoring above five on a scale of 0 to 18.
The scores can be stored on the App, allowing users to monitor changes to a horse's welfare over time.
Other features of the App include a diary where you can keep track of how much your horse eats, the amount of exercise he does and any medication he has.
There is also a handy check of whether your horse is showing signs compatible with PPID (Cushings disease).
The research team say that the current version of EPWA has been downloaded thousands of times already and is helping owners to recognise pain and discomfort in their horses and donkeys, thereby improving their health and welfare.
They are now working to develop a version specifically aimed at working donkeys in rural communities and developing countries. The Working Equine Pain and Welfare App ('W-EPWA') will be provided free of charge in order to encourage its widespread use and improve the health and welfare of horses and donkeys worldwide.
EPWA is a joint initiative of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Utrecht University and Stichting de Paardenkamp. It is available (free) from the usual app stores.
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