USDA releases equine industry study results

New information on equine health care, services by veterinarians
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The Department of Agriculture has released initial results from its third study of the U.S. equine industry, allowing horse, donkey, and other equid owners, veterinarians, and operators to compare the health and management of their equids with national and regional estimates. “Baseline Reference of Equine Health and Management in the United States, 2015,” published this past December, also has new information on where horse operation owners get their equine health care information and on services they receive from veterinarians, along with a breakdown of horse genders and breeds of horses owned.

The report is the first in a series of three reports from the USDA National Animal Health Monitoring System, documenting results from its Equine 2015 study. It follows NAHMS’ 1998 and 2005 equine studies. All the studies have been designed to provide information to serve as a basis for education, service, and research while providing the industry with information regarding trends.

This report, available here (PDF), focuses on general health and management practices and provides information across 28 states on equine operations with five or more equids. Data collected for the study represented 71.6 percent of equids and 70.9 percent of U.S. operations with five or more equids. Of those, approximately nine of 10 operations (88.9 percent) had 19 or fewer resident equids on May 1, 2015. These operations accounted for 58.1 percent of resident equids in the United States. (Resident equids were defined as equids that spent more time at one operation than at any other operation.) Although large operations (20 or more resident equids) accounted for only 11.1 percent of all operations, they accounted for 41.9 percent of all resident equids.

A recent industry report featured new data on equine health care. Overall, 70.7 percent of operations used a veterinarian as their primary information source in the previous 12 months—the highest reported to date, by far. (Courtesy of R. Anson Eaglin/USDA)
Woman and horse in a barn

The recent report featured new data on equine health care. Results showed that overall, 70.7 percent of operations used a veterinarian as their primary information source in the preceding 12 months—the highest reported to date, by far. Other than farriers, no listed primary resource for equine health information represented more than 10 percent of operations. About one-third of operations overall consulted with other equine owners, feed store or veterinary supply store staff, or equine publications.

Dr. Josie Traub-Dargatz is a professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences and an equine commodity specialist for the Center for Epidemiology and Animal Health of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Veterinary Services. As one of the Equine 2015 study authors, she says the report reinforced the fact that veterinarians are the primary trusted source of equine health information. At the same time, not all operations used a veterinarian for equine health services within the preceding 12 months, so she said there’s opportunity to grow that connection with owners.

The report also had new information on the equine health services that veterinarians provide equid owners. Results showed that equine operations used multiple types of services provided by a veterinarian at least once in the preceding 12 months. Overall, 78.7 percent of operations used a veterinarian’s services. Specifically, among all operations that used a veterinarian in the preceding 12 months:

  • 46.4 percent did so for diagnosis, treatment, or surgery in individual animals.
  • 45 percent did so for vaccination consultation.
  • 46.5 percent did so for administration of vaccines.
  • 41.3 percent did so for drugs or vaccines not administered by a veterinarian.
  • 47.4 percent did so for dentistry.
  • 41.6 percent did so for individual or herd diagnostic services.

“For veterinarians, it’s good to see—by size of operation and region—how the use of that provider might vary,” Dr. Traub-Dargatz said. She gave the example of how most operations (66.7 percent) vaccinated resident equids in the preceding 12 months. “Yet, it seems some operations are not vaccinating any equids. I think it’s an opportunity for practices to recapture that,” she said.

Overall, more than half of all operations (59.8 percent) had an end-of-life plan for equids.

Dental work is another opportunity for growth in equine practice, Dr. Traub-Dargatz said. The report showed that, in the preceding 12 months, the percentage of all operations that used a veterinarian as the primary equine dental-care provider (39.1 percent) was approximately equal to those that provided no dental care to resident equids (40.3 percent). Some states allow only licensed veterinarians to provide equine dental care, while others do not require that. Results indicated 16.9 percent of all operations used an equine dentist who is not a veterinarian as their primary dental care provider.

The report also detailed conditions commonly attributed to cause of death. For equids less than 1 year of age, injury, wounds, or trauma accounted for 27.8 percent of deaths, followed by digestive problems other than colic, such as diarrhea (17.8 percent), respiratory problems (15.4 percent), and failure to get milk or colostrum (13.2 percent). For equids ages 1 to less than 20 years, 31.2 percent of deaths were caused by colic; 16.3 percent by injury, wounds, or trauma; and 10.4 percent by respiratory problems. For equids 20 years of age or older, “other” was listed as the most common cause at 26.6 percent of deaths, then colic (13.4 percent), cancer (13.2 percent), neurologic problems (12.1 percent), and chronic weight loss (11.7 percent). The most common “other” specified condition attributed to death in that group was old age. Overall, more than half of all operations (59.8 percent) had an end-of-life plan for equids.

Dr. Traub-Dargatz said veterinarians can use the report to better inform not only themselves but also their clients.

“I think practitioners can use this if they have an operation and the people there are questioning whether their occurrence of colic is really above national estimates or whether they have a higher rate of animals injured than the average. I’ve certainly had people ask, as we looked at a condition among their horses, ‘Is that out of the ordinary?’” she said.

“This is a tool veterinarians can use to convince them that, ‘Yes, this is more prevalent, and here are things we can do about it.’”

A few other highlights from the report are as follows:

  • A higher percentage of operations in the South Central and Southeast regions (23.7 and 18.8 percent, respectively) had one or more donkeys or burros than operations in the West or Northeast regions (9.2 and 8.9 percent, respectively). And ponies accounted for 16.1 percent of equids among all operations nationwide. Still, 93.8 percent of operations had one or more horses.
  • Overall, 65.6 percent of resident equids were 5 to 20 years old; this age category accounted for the highest percentage of all resident equids. Equids less than 1 year of age accounted for 6.5 percent of resident equids, while those 1 year to less than 5 years of age accounted for 16.5 percent, and equids 20 years of age or older accounted for 11.4 percent.
  • Quarter Horses accounted for the highest percentage of all resident horse breeds (42.1 percent). This breed also accounted for the highest percentage of resident horses in the West and South Central regions (55.5 and 61.8 percent, respectively). The highest percentage of draft horses was in the Northeast region (15.2 percent of resident horses), and the highest percentage of Tennessee Walkers was in the Southeast region (15.1 percent).
  • Pleasure was the primary use for resident equids at 47.2 percent, followed by farm/ranch work at 25 percent.
  • Overall, 93.4 percent of births in the preceding 12 months resulted in a live foal. A higher percentage of foals in the West region (96.8 percent) were born alive, compared with foals in the Northeast (90.9 percent) and Southeast (91.5 percent) regions.

Further information from Equine 2015 will come out later this year, both in the form of technical reports and shorter informational sheets. Topics will include trends in equine care and health management for study years 1998, 2005, and 2015; the occurrence of owner-reported lameness and practices associated with the management of lameness; health and management practices associated with important equine infectious diseases; animal health–related costs of equine ownership; control practices for gastrointestinal parasites; and tick-control practices used on equine operations.

For more about the Equine Studies by the Department of Agriculture's National Animal Health Monitoring System, visit here.

Related JAVMA content:

Good news, bad news for equine practice owners (Feb. 15, 2016)

Study: Equine practices on the rebound (Feb. 15, 2014)

National equine study in the works (Dec. 15, 2013)

What lies ahead (Feb. 15, 2013)