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Research spotlight

WVS original research: skin wounds and mutilations in working donkeys, India

Rayner EL, Airikkala-Otter I, Susheelan A, Mellanby RJ, Meunier NV, Gibson A, Gamble L. ‘Prevalence of mutilations and other skin wounds in working donkeys in Tamil Nadu, India’. Veterinary Record. 2018 Oct 13;183(14):450. doi: 10.1136/vr.104863.

Key Points

  • Mutilations, such as branding and nose splitting, have a high prevalence in working donkeys in the Tamil Nadu region of India.
  • Veterinary and educational interventions, aimed at reducing the practice, have the potential to dramatically improve donkey welfare in the region.

Research question: why did we carry out this research?

Wounds are a common problem in the working equine population in India and, of these, mutilations are particularly concerning because they are preventable. Prior to this study, there was little evidence on the prevalence or nature of mutilations in donkeys.

Mutilation is a traditional practice which involves intentionally damaging or disfiguring part of the body of the animal; examples of this include hot branding and cutting of the nares. Owners perform these, mistakenly under the belief that this helps other conditions to heal or improves donkeys' performance. They hope to help the animal, but these practices have no benefit, cause pain and compromise welfare.

Figure 1: An example of hot branding wounds

Figure 1 - An example of hot branding wounds

WVS has been working in Tamil Nadu, India, since 2011 to improve the welfare of working equids and increase access to veterinary care. It was reported anecdotally by the veterinary teams that wounds were common in the area. It was important to carry out formal research, to gather information about the different types of mutilations, and why they happen. This would inform the design of future interventions by the charity, and ensure they were evidence-based and effective, with the purpose of reducing the practice of mutilation in these communities. It was hoped that our findings would also be useful for other veterinary and welfare organisations working in similar environments.

Methodology: what did we do?

Data were collected from five locations in Tamil Nadu between October 2016 and July 2017. These were sites of WVS treatment camps and were chosen due to the high density of donkeys in the area. A total of 582 donkeys were included in the study. Information was gathered about the donkeys’ working conditions, general health, and the presence of wounds or injuries. Each wound was described and photographed. Owners participated in the research, but physical and health evaluations were conducted by veterinarians. Information was recorded in the WVS smartphone App at the time of examination, using a pre-designed questionnaire.

Figure 2: A WVS field clinic for working equines

Figure 2 - A WVS field clinic for working equines

Results: what were the findings?

The data showed that 39% of donkeys had wounds and that mutilations comprised 63% of these. There were three main types of mutilations:

  • Nose splitting where the nares are permanently opened in an attempt to improve oxygen intake and therefore work efficiency.
  • Branding of various parts of the body in the hope of curing ailments like arthritis, colic, or lameness.
  • Ear splitting, which involves partial amputation of the ear, as it is believed that bleeding the donkeys can cure ailments such as snake bites.

The majority of mutilation wounds were healed and presented as scar tissue. The other wounds observed were mainly due to ill-fitting harnesses and use of hobble restraints. Most of the donkeys had a Body Condition Score of 3, with a healthy coat, normal hydration, and few external signs of disease.

Figure 3: A donkey presenting with chronic wounds from hot branding

Figure 3 - A donkey presenting with chronic wounds from hot branding

Interpretation: what insights can we gain from our findings?

This research was the first study to demonstrate that mutilation wounds have a high prevalence in this population of working donkeys. The study showed that mutilation is an important welfare issue and justifies further intervention to address the problem. Such a programme would have the potential to make significant improvements to the health and wellbeing of donkeys in the region.

The donkeys were otherwise in reasonable health, and mutilation wounds were predominantly scar tissue; recent wounds were less numerous. This may suggest the ongoing work of WVS in the region is having a positive impact on donkeys’ health and welfare, however, the study was limited by lack of previous, comparable data, so it wasn’t possible to quantify our impact.

The WVS smartphone App was shown to be a quick and successful tool for recording a large volume of data, in a busy field environment. This opened the opportunity to use the tool in future research.

Ongoing work

Since carrying out this research, WVS has continued to work in the region, providing veterinary care, educational workshops and liaising with local organisations to improve conditions for working animals. This has included creating an educational leaflet to share with owners on key welfare issues.

Our leaflet is available for download here, and we hope it can be used in other regions by other organisations working towards a shared goal of improved welfare.

Figure 4

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