Working equines whose owners believe in their capacity to feel emotion have significantly better health and welfare than those whose owners do not, according to new research by the University of Portsmouth and The Donkey Sanctuary.

Published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, the study is the first to show a link between the welfare of working equids and the attitudes and beliefs of their owners, in different countries and contexts around the world. Researchers visited communities in Egypt, Mexico, Pakistan, Senegal, Spain and Portugal, where they carried out welfare assessments. This included a questionnaire for owners about their beliefs, values and attitudes towards their animals and a detailed assessment of the equines’ welfare.

The study found animals whose owners believed they felt emotions or who had an emotional bond with them, were in significantly better health and had higher body condition scores than those whose owners did not, or who focused on how profitable or useful they were. Similarly, animals whose owners believed they could feel pain were much less likely to be lame.

Working donkeys drinking from a communal water point in Portugal. Credit: Emily Haddy

“We know people’s feelings toward their animals can impact their welfare, but we wanted to know if this differs across cultures,” said Lead author, Dr Emily Haddy, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Portsmouth’s Centre for Comparative and Evolutionary Psychology. “Our research involved equid-owning communities in six countries, whose animals worked in a diverse range of contexts including agriculture, tourism and construction.

“This is the first study to link owner attitudes to the welfare of their working equids across multiple countries and contexts. Our findings highlight the importance of the relationship between owners and their animals, and its significant impact on animal health and welfare.”

Co-author and Executive Director of Equine Operations at The Donkey Sanctuary, Dr Faith Burden, said the study provides further peer-reviewed, scientific evidence to support the charity’s work across the world.

“What’s really exciting is these findings could inform and increase the efficacy of future welfare initiatives,” she said. “For example, promoting emotional connection and awareness of animal sentience among owners of working equids could potentially influence attitudes and lead to improvements in the welfare of working equids around the world.”

An owner with her working donkey in Portugal. Credit: Emily Haddy

Co-author, Dr Leanne Proops, Associate Professor in Animal Behaviour at the University of Portsmouth’s Department of Psychology, added that it was important to avoid assumptions about the owners of animals who had poorer health and welfare indicators.

“It’s possible these owners simply don’t have the resources to look after their animals as well, and because they don’t like to think of them suffering, they adjust their beliefs to think that their animals don’t feel pain,” she said. “This is a well-documented psychological technique that people use to minimise psychological distress when their behaviour and beliefs don’t align.

“This is a very important study that paves the way for further research to establish causality, and a greater understanding of compassion and animal welfare.”

To read the paper, Belief in Animal Sentience and Affective Owner Attitudes are linked to Positive Working Equid Welfare across Six Countries, click here.

Lead image of a working donkey in Mexico. Credit, Emily Haddy

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