August 24, 2012

Branding Animals Does Not Mean Easy Identification

Brett Smith for — Your Universe Online

Animal branding has been in use since the ancient Egyptians marked their livestock with hot irons several thousand years ago, but the practice has come under fire in recent years from animal rights groups.

Critics of the convention say that it causes undue stress and harm to the animals, but veterinary scientists from Germany and Austria have decided to approach the controversy from a different direction by investigating the reliability and the readability of horse brands.

According to the group´s report in The Veterinary Journal, three horse brand experts had difficulty properly identifying about half of almost 250 equestrian horses involved in the study.

A typical horse brand combines a symbol to indicate the individual breed along with a two-digit number to identify the animal itself. All three experts were able to distinguish the breed identifiers on about 90 percent of the animals and for about 84 percent of the animals the breed symbol was recorded correctly by all three people.

However, correctly identifying each individual proved much more difficult for the test panel. Each of the three readers read the numbers correctly on about half of the horses and the correct identifier was recorded by all three panelists for less than 40 percent of the animals.

The vets also wanted to see if the experts could identify brands under optimal conditions: on deceased animals with the area around the brand marking shaved clean. For the study, they were able to access 28 animals that had been euthanized for reasons unrelated to branding.

Although the horse brands were presented as clearly as possible, the marks could be clearly identified on only nine of the 28 animals. On six horses neither the brand symbol nor the two-digit identifier could be gleaned; even after the branding site, typically on the left thigh or side of the neck, had been shaved.

The euthanized horses also provided an opportunity for the vets to perform a histological examination of the branding site to check for evidence of tissue damage. All of the horses, except for one, showed histological changes and tissue damage at the branding sites. They also noticed medical complications that likely arose because of the painful procedures. The veterinary team said the ℠injuries´ caused by the hot branding iron were consistent with having experienced a third-degree thermal injury.

Based on these results, the research team asserts that branding is an unreliable method for marking and tracking horses. They also suggest that the tissue damage and probably stress this procedure causes far outweigh any benefits it might have.

Branding is clearly associated with local tissue damage and the markings are often insufficiently clear to be decoded, even by experienced observers or after the horse has died,” said co-author Jörg Aurich, from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna. “There really isn´t any reason to continue to mark horses in this outdated way.”

Over the past few decades, the livestock industry has gradually switched toward the use of microchips for tracking animals, although the relatively low cost of branding has kept the technology from widespread use.