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Cooperative Equine Veterinary Care: Way to go?

What is cooperative veterinary care? What is it based on? Is it useful for dealing with horse patients? Can every horse learn to be a cooperative patient? Let’s go find the answers to these questions!

What is cooperative veterinary care

Cooperative veterinary care is a complex approach to the animal patient, focused on reducing the patient’s stress. It is also called the patient-centered approach because it takes into consideration how the animal feels what the animal communicates to the human instead of focusing solely on having the procedure done.

Cooperative veterinary care is more like a dialogue between the animal and the human (owner, veterinarian, technician…), where the animal can say YES to the procedure, but he’s also allowed to say NO. Where the human let the animal patient say START but would also listen to the patient’s STOP.

This approach gives the animal more control over his life which reduces his fear and his level of stress significantly. The animals then feel like cooperating much more than defending themselves. This also means that besides improving animal welfare, using cooperative veterinary care, we also increase our safety.

What is cooperative veterinary care based on

You might think: “I’d like to persuade my horse (or another animal) to cooperate during his treatment, routine health care or husbandry procedures, but how? The horse doesn’t understand that he really needs to get this injection or that he really needs to get his wound cleaned.”

That’s true. There’s no way (probably…?) to explain to the horse that to get vaccinated is still far less annoying than to be dealing with an infectious disease. That if the wound is not cleaned regularly, it’s healing will be compromised and delayed. But there is a way to explain that cooperativeness could be beneficial to the horse.

The horses (as well as other animals) can learn cooperative behaviour through positive reinforcement training. If you wish to read more about using positive reinforcement with equine patients, take a look at these two articles:

Positive treat-ment introduction

Positive treat-ment: Getting started

Is it useful in equine practice?

Is cooperative veterinary care something that you can really practice with horses on a daily basis? From my point of view, the answer is YES. If cooperative care base on using reward was practiced routinely, there would be fewer horses who show difficult and sometimes dangerous behaviour associated with veterinary care.

However, it might be not that easy to simply switch from the traditional way of handling horse patients to the cooperative.

Practicing cooperative equine health care requires more planning and thinking in advance. We need to be able to create a safe environment so that horses are willing to cooperate. We also need to understand how the learning process works to be able to teach horses cooperative behaviours. It requires all the persons involved in treating the horse to be “on the same wave”.

To be able to apply cooperative veterinary care successfully, we need to understand that the key concept is not to have the procedure done, no matter what but to create a positive experience for the animals.

I found training voluntary cooperative behaviours particularly useful with horses who have had problems with health care procedures and who have already developed a successful strategy on how to avoid these procedures.

Can every horse learn to be a cooperative patient?

Similarly to the previous question – I think, YES but it’s not that simple. Cooperative veterinary and husbandry care is based on providing a horse with a choice to participate voluntarily and making the cooperation rewarding.

Every horse will repeat behaviour that has pleasurable consequences. It’s one of the basic principles of learning. It means that every horse can learn to be a cooperative patient. Theoretically.

In practice, it all depends on our abilities to train horses to cooperate, to create a safe environment so they can learn effectively instead of feeling the need to defend themselves. Teaching a horse to cooperate voluntarily may also take time (especially if the horse has had problems for a long time). Sometimes we’d like to teach our horses cooperative behaviours but we give up because we just don’t want to invest the time.

As you can see, the answer to this question is not that much about horses as it is about us. About our knowledge, our skills, our patience.

I like to watch videos of cooperative training that is held in ZOOs all around the world. It’s fascinating to watch a tiger, a hyena or a zebra participating unrestrained in blood sampling and other procedures. My favourite video is probably this:

If a zebra can do it, your horse can do it!

Conclusion: Cooperative veterinary care: Way to go???

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"Hello! My name is Katerina, I am the equine veterinarian interested in professional and sofisticated animal handling through applied learning theory. I help the horses and their humans go through the medical care in easier, less stressful, more ethical and safer way." Read more >