Veterinary ethics are especially touchy and complex because the general public often has strong opinions on every animal issue, including: euthanasia, animal welfare, animal rights, cosmetic surgery, private breeding, puppy mills, spaying and neutering, pit bulls, leash laws, animals as food, veal, genetic engineering, hormone use, vaccination, preventative care, training techniques, feral cats, dogs and livestock, licensing, service animals, classroom animals, TV animals, animal research, animal testing, animal waste, grazing on public lands, raw-food diets, alternative medicine, hunting, population control, use of animals in sports, no-kill shelters, captive wild animals, and a million others that people will vehemently defend their side on.
There are many on that list that I myself have strong opinions on, but its my responsibility as a scientist and my benefit as a debater to approach conflict on this issues as discussions, not arguments. I’m not always the best at it, but I pride myself on my willingness to be proven wrong. I like to think that when shown data, presented in a clear and unbiased way, I can base my decisions on all the information presented, rather than simply reject new opinions. Terry Etherton had a few great posts about communicating with non-scientists, and how there’s a need to reach out even when you receive a poor response. This isn’t just a scientist vs. the lay public thing, this is for anyone who wants to be part of a productive discussion of these issues. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but unless we listen to each other and work toward middle ground, nothing ever gets done.
With my little editorial finished, lets jump into this article on branding and microchip use in foals.
“For animal welfare reasons, many veterinarians are currently promoting the method of implanting a microchip over the traditional practice of branding, while officials of major sport horse breed registries deny that branding really causes pain or stress to foals.” (ScienceDaily, 2011)
I’m a big promoter of microchipping, it’s hardly an invasive procedure, and causes little more pain than a vaccine. At my animal shelter, almost all microchipped animals we received were reunited with owners, as long as the chip data was current. They’re especially great for cats, who have a knack of removing collars with identification information when lost, and are more likely not to carry identification in the first place. The data shows that microchipped animals are much more likely to be returned home from shelters than non-microchipped animals. I haven’t heard much about microchipping in large animals until now, but I can understand why there’s a debate there.
Microchipping would be a difficult identifier in any large group of horses, as you need to get within inches of the animals, and there’s no way to simply view the identification. Ear tagging is unwanted aesthetically in horses, which leaves branding as a useful permanent mark. Freeze branding is an option the article doesn’t discuss, but it’s expensive, not always recognized by the state, and will be less visible depending on the animal’s color. The University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna has done a study concluding that hot branding causes more long term stress from the injury, assuming that the short term stress is mostly due to restraining procedures the foals must go through to be microchipped or branded. The fact remains however, that branding in many ways is superior to microchipping depending on the management of the animals.
The counter argument to using microchips is further strengthened by the comparing the procedure to other common practices with foals. Castration, tail docking, and (in cattle) polling can be considered far more traumatic, and have similar debatable merits depending on the management strategy. The article also mentions a tradition component that it doesn’t elaborate on. Many county fairs have branding competitions and branding is often made into an event in rural areas, implying that the tradition of branding animals has a cultural component independent of animal welfare.
While branding may be more stressful for the animals, I do not think that microchipping is an adequate replacement as the only means of identification in large animals. The specific purpose microchips serve well in companion animals doesn’t translate into the same needs we have for livestock. Hopefully another solution will eventually be available, but for now it seems that the use of brands, ear tags, and microchips will be determined by management, not its effect on the animal.