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Prof. Josh Slater writes:

Defining health and welfare for the UK horse population - time for action

In his opening comments at the 2011 National Equine Forum, the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Jim Paice, made clear the high importance of disease surveillance for the UK horse industry and restated the central role of the 2007 Equine Health and Welfare Strategy for Great Britain in its future success. The Strategy has eight aims which address the major needs of the industry. Aim 2 (Health Surveillance) recognises that accurate disease prevalence data are a vital prerequisite for defining health and establishing benchmarks for equine welfare and management at both individual horse and population level.

Four years on, through a project led by the Blue Cross and the British Equine Veterinary Association, we now have a practical way of collecting disease data through the National Equine Health Surveys (NEHS) and finally have a means of delivering Aim 2 of the Strategy in our grasp. This is a significant step forwards and the challenge is now, I believe, for the equine industry to work together so that the data collected through NEHS is representative of all industry sectors.

Disease surveillance is more complex than might first be imagined and is conducted for a variety of different reasons. To many people, I suspect disease surveillance means exotic disease surveillance or perhaps contagious or infectious disease surveillance in the broader sense. International competition and trade of horses and equine biological products like semen and plasma are integral to the UK industry but bring significant disease risks: the 2010 outbreaks of Equine Viral Arteritis and Equine Infectious Anaemia are potent reminders of these risks. Surveillance of exotic (notifiable) diseases is provided by Defra and I believe we can be confident that we have effective measures in place and that unrecognised notifiable diseases are not circulating in our horse population.

The greater challenge lies with the endemic diseases; diseases probably considered by some horse owners and equine veterinarians as 'ordinary' diseases which are simply part of horse ownership and have to be lived with. It is true that by their nature we generally have to find ways of controlling, rather than eliminating, endemic diseases. However, in my opinion it does not help equine welfare to simply regard endemic diseases as facts of life since this leads to a tolerance of their occurrence and likely under-recognition of their importance. This is particularly true for the non-infectious endemic disease like lameness, colic and skin disease and may, I suspect also be true for some of the infectious diseases like strangles. At present we do have a useful scheme, the Defra/AHT/BEVA quarterly reports, for infectious disease surveillance based on diagnostic laboratory submissions but we have no surveillance measures in place for non-infectious endemic diseases.

The equine welfare codes of practice have been a very important step forwards in providing a framework for the UK horse industry. To really make the codes work in practice and to underpin them with an evidence base, I believe we now need disease surveillance data to provide benchmarks against which health, disease and welfare can be measured. Disease surveillance will allow us to pinpoint problems and if we know the expected levels of disease we can identify changes and implement prevention measures. Importantly, disease prevalence data will not only provide evidence to underpin the equine codes of practice but would extend to practical improvement of equine welfare by underpinning the work of welfare inspectors and Veterinary Officers. Health benchmarks would be applicable to riding establishment inspections and there would be a valuable opportunity to include such benchmarks into livery yard inspections, when these are eventually introduced. I would like to see health and welfare benchmarks incorporated into existing yard approval schemes, for example the BHS Approved Yard Scheme, with recognition through an equine equivalent of the Red Tractor Assurance scheme for food and farming. Health benchmarks would also provide a solid platform for equine veterinary health plans and have the potential to provide a shift in equine practice from the traditional 'fire-brigade' role to a focus on preventive health care.

I see 2011 as a critical year for endemic disease surveillance in the UK. The 2010 on-line pilot of NEHS demonstrated that the on-line approach using syndromic surveillance for  horse owners to record what their horse was doing on the day of the survey was a practical way of collecting endemic disease prevalence data. Although this was a relatively small scale pilot ahead of the major roll-outs this year, the 2010 survey has already produced some interesting insights into what we might discover when data is collected directly from owners as opposed to veterinary records or insurance claims. For example, although lameness was the most common syndrome recorded, the high prevalence of skin disease and metabolic disease was a surprise. It is now time for action and for all sectors of the horse industry to take part in the 2011 NEHS surveys: the more data we can collect the more useful the results will be to us all.