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Low stress approach to the equine patient

One of the reasons why I started to apply the learning theory to my veterinary practice (and why I started to work on this whole educational project, later on) was to help my patients to cope with the vet procedures without unnecessary stress.

The role of stress in human health is well recognized. It is commonly known that chronic stress and unhealthy lifestyle contribute to the emergence of problems which we call civilization diseases. Being stressed is not something that one can enjoy. With an increasing level of stress, the quality of life decreases, both in humans and in animals.

The common stressor for many animal species is being taken to the vet. The tendencies to make the vet’s visit the most positive and the least stressful experience possible are seen more often in the companion animals’ health care. Both the owners and the vets in small animal practice seem to be more and more interested in the emotional well being of their pets or their patients.

Recently, some of the equine veterinarians, horse owners, and trainers point out the importance of implementing the low-stress techniques in equine medical care also.

Why should we care about the equine patient’s stress?

Main reasons for using techniques for reducing stress in equine patients:

  • The first reason that comes to my mind is: Because such a patient can be dangerous
  • Stress causes physiological changes preparing the organism for defensive behaviour while decreasing the ability to think and learn
  • When stressed out, the horse will less likely to cooperate with us
  • The animal’s stress response can lead to compromising the vet’s and the handler’s (owner’s) safety
  • The treatment is often more difficult and time consuming
  • By eliciting stress, the welfare of the patient is compromised

Pathophysiology of stress

Speaking about low-stress handling, it’s essential to clarify what the term “stress” means. Nowadays, it seems that you can find this word wherever you look. Stress is mentioned so often in the association with long working hours and busy lifestyle that it has been almost forgotten that stress is actually a biological process evolutionarily encoded in all the living beings.

From a biological point of view, stress is a physiological (= normal) defensive response of the organism. This reaction to the environmental stressors (stress-inducing stimuli) starts up the cascade of changes which prepares the organism for an action, whether it is a hunt or saving life.

THE LOW LEVEL OF STRESS IS USEFUL. IT HELPS TO INCREASE THE PERFORMANCE. ON THE OTHER HAND, LONG-LASTING OR EXCESSIVE STRESS CAN CAUSE SERIOUS DAMAGE TO THE ORGANISM.

During the stress response, the substances like adrenalin or cortisol are released, while the release of the others (like oxytocin) is disrupted.

Excessive production of cortisol suppresses the immune system and it delays the healing.  During stress, the catabolic processes prevail in the body to mobilize the sources of energy. Catabolism is not compatible with the regeneration of the organism which we want to achieve in the equine patient.

Stress threshold

When the blood level of the stress hormones goes up, there is a point where everything has gone too far – it’s called a stress threshold.

When this point is reached, it doesn’t mean that the blood level of the stress hormones can’t rise anymore. It means that the stress is so big (and from the horse’s point of view the thread is so real) that the limbic system (evolutionarily older part of the brain) takes the control over the horse’s reactions. The horse is able to perform only the instinctive behaviour leading to saving his life.

THERE ARE 3 TYPES OF THE INSTINCTIVE REACTIONS: FLIGHT (THE MOST COMMON IN HORSES), FIGHT (WHERE THE FIRST IS NOT AN OPTION) AND FRIGHT (WHICH IS OFTEN MISINTERPRETED AS CALMING DOWN).

By the time of reaching the stress threshold, the higher cognitive functions controlled by the neocortex (from the evolutional point of view, the youngest part of the brain which is responsible for more complex thinking) are switched off. It means that the animal is not capable of reasoning and learning.

The decrease of the stress hormones level is not immediate (it depends on the intensity and the lasting of the stress). It can take a few days for the stress hormones drop to their baseline.

This is very important to consider when the stressful procedure needs to be repeated every day or more times a day. If the horse patient was stressed out in the morning his stress hormones level would be still above the normal values in the evening and he would require much less of a stressor to get frightened.

How to make the vet care less stressful

Low-stress medical care is a way of handling the animal patient which emphasizes the animal’s calmness and relaxation before, during and after the procedure.

  • Start with yourself: If you are stressed you cannot expect your horse or your patient to be calm. Find the reason why you are stressed. Always act in a calm manner. Don’t rush. (Yes, it’s not all about learning and science ← more in this article)
  • Use as little of restraint as possible: Excessive restraint may elicit fear, anxiety or even aggression in the animal. If the restraint lasts for a long time it can cause physical harm to the patient (for example – injury of the lip when using a twitch or a lip chain).
  • Use the punishment reasonably: Don’t use the punishment as the first choice intention for all the animal’s behaviour that you don’t like. Using a punishment is actually quite a difficult task. It should come at the time (or within 1-2 second after) the undesired behaviour is performed. Punishment doesn’t teach the correct response and it can even elicit aggressive behaviour. When the punishment is effective, it stops the punished behaviour and makes it less likely to be repeated in the future.
  • Know the animals: Applying the low-stress approach to the equine patient’s handling requires knowledge on the side of both the veterinarian and the horse owner/handler. Know the horses’ natural behaviour and basic principles of the learning theory. Know how to assess the horse’s body language – how the calm and relaxed horse looks like, be able to distinguish the first signs of horse’s nervousness, fear, anxiety or aggression
  • Do your best for keeping the patient relaxed and preventing the anxious, fearful or aggressive behaviour.
  • Training the horses for the most common vet procedures is very helpful for reducing stress.
"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 >