Monitoring herd health in donkeys using welfare assessment and clinical records

Alexandra K. Thiemann
Karen Rickards
Presentation date

Traditional herd health monitoring is based on veterinary morbidity/ mortality figures using historical data from computerised records. The Donkey Sanctuary has responsibility for a large number of rescue and rehomed donkeys on farms whose welfare is high priority. The Donkey Sanctuary has introduced a validated welfare assessment tool to be used four times a year, to monitor animal and resource based measures of welfare (AWIN). This allows information to captured in real time rather than retrospectively and adverse welfare can be identified. Using this tool allows evidence based management changes to be made.

The Donkey Sanctuary is an equine charity whose mission is to “transform the quality of life for donkeys, mules and the people that depend upon them worldwide”. In the UK, The Donkey Sanctuary cares for over 2000 donkeys on a number of farms varying in size from 250-580 animals. The farms aim to rehome up to 10% of their herd annually to guardian (private) homes or donkey assisted therapy centres. The farms also provide a show case for our work to visiting professionals and the public. Welfare of the donkeys on farms is critical to the credibility of The Donkey Sanctuary. Using welfare-based criteria alongside health records has enabled the teams to pro-actively monitor donkey welfare, refine management practices, re-direct budgets and track progress. Since 2017, The Donkey Sanctuary has been using the stage 1 AWIN (Animal Welfare Indicators), which are animal and resource based measures. AWIN is used on a quarterly basis on all farms to evaluate the following AWIN criteria: Appropriate nutrition (body condition score BCS), Absence of injuries (lameness, joint swelling, skin change, prolapse), Absence of disease (hair coat, faecal staining, ocular/nasal discharge, abnormal breathing, cheek teeth palpation), Absence of Pain (hoof neglect, lameness, hot branding), and Human-Animal Relationship (avoidance behaviours, tail tuck). The donkeys chosen are a random 10% at each visit using a named list of donkeys. This data is evaluated alongside information collected from a computer based Animal Management System, where vets input clinical conditions in pre-determined categories to monitor physical health - the main ones aligned are BCS, lameness, colic, hyperlipaemia, sarcoid, eye disease, and mortality rate. Over 1 year at 1 farm with 580 donkeys: AWIN showed (i) loss of weight control over summer with total animals BCS >4 (scale 1-5) increasing from 13% in January to 31% in September, (ii) lameness peaking on turnout (from 6-15% herd), (iii) skin disease (relating to lice burden) decreasing from 32% (winter) to 7 % summer, (iv) hoof neglect (thrush, abscesses) remaining high all year at >50%, (v) avoidance behaviours constant at about 12%- relating to new animals arriving and calm animals leaving. Data is recorded in Excel, and presented graphically and by written documentation. Quarterly meetings with the farm manager and staff enable timely feedback.

Welfare can be benchmarked across farms and improvements aimed for. AWIN is validated and straightforward to use.

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