Perhaps no other animal is more entwined with the history and development of our nation than the horse. Valued as a mode of transportation, and romanticized in early Western movies, horses nowadays are largely companions and pets. It is for these reasons that the discovery of horse meat in beef meant for human consumption has generated such horror in the United States. In this article about horses, DugDug will take a look at the current state of equine health care and the issues surrounding horse meat with Dr. Anthony Blikslager, Professor of Equine Surgery and Gastroenterology, DVM, PhD, DACVS at the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Equine Population & Care
There are an estimated nine million horses in the United States today. In a 2012 nationwide equine industry survey, the American Horse Publications polled approximately 10,000 people on multiple uses of their horses. 73% of respondents reported using their horses for pleasure or trail riding. Dressage came in second at 26%, and training lessons rounded out the top three common uses of horses at 23%.
In terms of veterinary care, horses should at a minimum be vaccinated and de-wormed of intestinal parasites. “As a very general statement,” notes Dr. Blikslager, “correct care of horses is very important to ensure that they remain healthy. Horses have developed over millions of years to forage most of the day. Thinking of them in this way helps owners develop suitable management practices. They should be fed lots of forage, such as grass and hay, and be turned out for exercise as much as possible.”The top three equine health problems that Dr. Blikslager sees are lameness, colic, and upper respiratory problems.
Lameness: To quote Dr. Blikslager’s paraphrasing of Mark Twain, “A horse never misses the chance to go lame.” Horses have developed for speed by effectively running on one finger (or toe) of each leg, which is a lot of pressure on that one structure.
Colic: To survive on forage, horses have highly developed gastrointestinal tracts. At times, the number of configurations of knots the bowel can get in is amazing. Alternatively, they can become impacted (obstructed) due to inadequate water intake or poor quality feed.
Upper Respiratory Problems: Horses are only supposed to breathe through the nostrils to get maximum air into the lungs for running. Sometimes something gets in the way of air intake, causing abnormal noise or roaring that requires surgical treatment to resolve.
One of the latest advancements in equine care is ‘regenerative medicine’. This typically involves supplying stem cells from the horse being treated into its own injury site to reduce rejection. One such example is harvesting stem cells from a horse’s bone marrow or body fat and injecting them into its joint, tendon, or ligament to induce tissue regeneration. “This technology may speed up repair with high quality tissue,” observes Dr. Blikslager, “but we don’t understand enough to know the fate of the injected cells, and there is debate as to how much this helps. We have recently started studies to identify stem cells in equine intestine, with the hope that we can harvest these at the time of surgery from a section of bowel that needs to be removed and place these in the site of the intestinal closure.”
For the most part, the vast majority of these horses is well cared for and loved. Unfortunately, due to various factors such as economic hardship and neglect, a minority of horses do face some form of abandonment. “One of the largest socioeconomic issues facing the equine industry is the plight of the ‘Unwanted Horse’,” states Dr. Blikslager. This issue is also highlighted as the most urgent issue requiring resolution by 24% of respondents in the American Horse Publications survey.
Dr. Blikslager estimates that roughly 100,000 horses are abandoned every year across the nation. Unwanted horses can be seen on the plains of the Western U.S., and have merged with the population of wild horses managed by the Bureau of Land Management. In the East, most unwanted horses may be poorly treated or starved due to some combination of high feeding costs and lack of knowledge.
Horse Slaughter & Consumption
Another one of the top three urgent issues identified in the American Horse Publications survey is the absence of slaughter options, which is noted by 13% of participants. The last three processing plants in the nation were shut in 2007 in Texas and Illinois after the United States Department of Agriculture ceased horse meat inspections. As a result, horses were transported to Mexico and Canada to be slaughtered for human consumption. Preliminary 2012 records from the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the agricultural ministry in Canada, indicate that the largest export market for horse meat is Belgium, followed by France and Japan.
The main concern with consuming horse meat would be the transfer of drugs, namely, phenylbutazone. Phenylbutazone, also known as bute, is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug used on horses that is similar to aspirin or ibuprofen. According to Dr. Blikslager, such drug residues in meat may become dangerous for humans if consumed for long enough. Fortunately for us, “In the beef industry, meat is regularly tested for drug residues. The United States does not import beef from any of the European countries involved in the horse meat scandal. Nevertheless, consumers should pay close attention to news releases from trusted sources such as the United States Department of Agriculture.”