Elderly horse care creates tough welfare issue

Longer lifespans mean many horses are starting to outlive their owners’ ability to properly care for them

The average lifespan of horses has increased in the last 25 years thanks to better health care.

“With medications, specialty feeds, dental care and preventive medicine, many horses live comfortably well into their 30s,” said equine veterinarian Bettina Bobsien of the Galiano Veterinary Service on Vancouver Island.

However, many horses are starting to outlive their owners’ ability to properly care for them, she said at the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies meeting in Calgary April 21-24.

“Given the very long lifespan of horses, the costs of long-term care can be prohibitive.

“On average, many horses retire from active work around age 15 to 20. Retirement can now last for 10 years or more and basic care at $650 per month is over $7,500 per year,” she said.

“That is a $75,000 investment.”

People do this because they can afford it or they find the money.

“They are not prepared to ship or euthanize their dance partner,” she said.

The equine code of practice provides guidelines for care of elderly horses because they may suffer from declining hoof condition or loss of teeth or have developed conditions such as arthritis or Cushing’s disease.

Timely euthanasia is not a bad welfare practice but pawning off old, unwanted horses onto unsuspecting horse lovers is not usually a good choice.

Horse rescue facilities are suggested as an alternative but many of these shelters throughout North America are at capacity and they will be until their owners retire in 10 to 15 years.

If a horse owner is considering a shelter, the first question should be the long-term financial plan for 20 years. As the horses age, they need more time and care, feed and medications.

The public says humane societies or SPCA should rescue unwanted horses but that can lead to a disaster.

The shelters are full and short of funds and staff is over extended.

“This is not the solution. What we are creating here is where we were with cats 20 years ago,” she said.

Social media campaigns work hard to save horses destined for slaughter. Well-meaning people adopt these horses but the welfare of the whole group may suffer.

If there are too many horses, there could be a decline in preventive care because of lack of funds, and overworked caregivers may burn out.

There may also be serious biosecurity concerns in rescuing horses from an auction. They may have behaviour problems or contagious diseases.

There are alternatives but they can be controversial.

Cremating or burying a horse is expensive.

“That is an enormous amount of biomass that has to be dealt with,” she said.

It costs $200 to bury a horse and $2,000 to cremate.

Past generations in North America were willing to send these horses to meat processors.

Slaughter numbers have declined since 2008 when about 100,000 horses were slaughtered in Canada. In 2016, 53,873 horses were consigned to slaughter.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency no longer releases these horse slaughter statistics citing privacy concerns.

As well, a major economic crisis caused a decline in horse breeding in many regions from 2008-13, which has resulted in few five- to 10-year-old horses being available.

Of horses slaughtered in Canada, 37 to 73 percent are from the United States. Slaughter for meat ended in 2007 because the U.S. government refused to continue funding meat inspectors at the plants so the facilities closed.

Horses are shipped to Canada or Mexico or they are abandoned.

There are North American cultural biases against eating horse meat but there are thriving industries in Japan and Europe. Iceland has a culture of eating foals.

The European model provides small abattoirs in areas of horse concentration. Horses travel with a passport that shows all medications and health issues.

Bobsien told those at the meeting that funds must be set aside to deal with end-of-life care for horses. It could be the work of horse groups or provincial organizations to establish a special fund so when the situations arise, money is available for euthanasia.

“Doing the dirty work of arranging euthanasia is the responsibility of owners and the industry, not the animal welfare agencies,” she said.

“Be practical. It is simply too costly to retire all these horses.”

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