Animal behavior specialist Sue McDonnell, PhD, adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center and the founding head of the Center's Equine Behavior Program, spoke at the Equine Veterinarians Australia annual conference this week on ways for veterinarians to interpret behavioral changes in horses and which ones could have physical causes.
McDonnell says that behavioral changes without obvious physical causes can be very challenging to diagnose by simple clinical examination alone. The behavioral signs can be subtle or disappear in the face of a threat, such as an examination by a veterinarian.
Behavioral changes can also be a sign of underlying pain. A horse in pain could also stop displaying a problem behavior when distracted by food or social situations.
"A 24-hour continuous videotape of the horse can help identify possible physical or psychological causes," she suggests. "When horses are undisturbed in a quiet, familiar environment, they are more likely to show signs of discomfort.
"Repeated subtle signs, such as tail movements, head-shaking and changes in breathing are very helpful in recognizing abnormal behaviors, which may indicate underlying pain," she said.
McDonnell also gave conference presentations on normal behavior and socialization of horses, and stallion, mare, and foal behavior. McDonnell brings her perspective from years of scientific study and observation of wild horse herd behavior and interactions.
The conference, being run by Equine Veterinarians Australia, a special interest group of the Australian Veterinary Association, was held at the Brisbane Convention Centre in Queensland, July 8-13.