Can statistics help animal welfare….

….the Brook think so.

[A donkey with lesions on the spine]

This donkey is seriously suffering with lesions on the spine. Obviously it must be the pack saddle that is causing the sores so let’s add extra padding under its pack saddle to make it better. If we’re lucky this might reduce the problem, but what if the problem is actually more complicated than that? What if the padding is important, but only when coupled with being dirty, or with rough handling from the owner, or a particularly awkward load? Then increasing the padding would be unlikely to make much impact, and besides, what type and thickness of padding would it be best to change it to? Many such welfare issues are faced by working equines in developing countries and the fact that they may be caused not by one obvious factor, but by many factors which are not always obvious and may interact with each other, is the underlying principle of the Risk Assessment project developed by the Brooke.

Historically animal welfare work abroad, has typically assumed the causes of such problems, but not necessarily known them or had evidence to support them. Hence treatment or prevention interventions may have been based more on assumption than fact.

However the Brooke takes a different approach. The Brooke is the UK’s leading overseas equine welfare charity, committed to improving the welfare of horses and donkeys in some of the poorest countries in the world. Countries where families are dependant on their donkeys, horses or mules for their work, and therefore the welfare of these animals can mean life or death for the family. And yet, many suffer through malnutrition, disease and injury due to poverty, misguided intention or lack of accessible or affordable veterinary care. Since 1934, the Brooke has been providing free treatment and training through their teams of mobile vets and animal welfare workers. They have been working hard to underpin their work with scientific evidence.

The Brooke believes in sustainable support. That is they look to finding long-term solutions to the problems and not just fixing them in the short term. To fully achieve this they need to understand what these welfare issues are and what causes them. This scientifically based approach is unique to the Brooke amongst animal welfare NGO’s abroad.

A Risk Assessment Team, headed up by Amanda Childs, studies welfare issues individually to identify and understand the root causes of the problem. Her team visit the communities and observe, measure and record data on all sorts of issues surrounding the problem being assessed. This data is then collated and analysed using GenStat to understand which are the key factors contributing to the welfare issue. The long term aim being to eliminate these welfare issues by designing specifically targeted interventions.

[A donkey with lip lesions]

For example, a study in Mardan and Gujranwala in Pakistan found that 70% of the horses, mules and donkeys pulling carts had lip lesions. The animals were in considerable pain from the lesions alone, let alone any secondary effects such as lack of ability to eat adequate feed.

The assessments are always incredibly detailed, and this one in Pakistan was no exception: 203 measurements and observations were made on more than 370 animals in a month. The data included many characteristics of the bit in the animal’s mouth, from its overall design to its rustiness, size and cleanliness. Close observations of the driving behaviour were made, such as the frequency with which the reins were pulled, any beating and the style of loading, as well as many other measurements taken from the working environment, the cart and bridle, and of course the animal itself.

The Brooke Risk Assessment staff has been training in statistics and the use of Genstat for the last two years. Their knowledge of Genstat not only allows them to present their work graphically and descriptively, but to analyse the relationships between the welfare issue (outcome) variables and explanatory variables, predominantly using linear and logistic regression analyses. The ‘screening test’ facility enables them to explore both univariate and multivariate relationships far more quickly than with any other software, while the ability to calculate both conditional and marginal tests for linear models makes it quick and easy to identify potentially confounded variables.

The results of the lip lesion assessment were fascinating and showed that 20 different factors contributed to the lesions. Specifically these factors could be split into 4 groups:

  1. the bit
  2. the attitude and behaviour of the owner
  3. the animal itself
  4. the cart and harness.

The detail of the results mean specific advice and help can be offered to the animal’s owner, who depend on these animals for their livelihoods. Information about the type of bit to use, the use of a nose band and the best ways to drive the animals…in all 17 recommendations have been made by the risk assessment team, which can be used in the animal owning communities to dramatically reduce if not eradicate the problem of lip lesions on these animals.

The ease of use of GenStat’s menu system has meant that the Brooke’s field staff can now produce their own statistical analysis of the issues and are increasingly keen to do so, despite not being statisticians by training. Indeed most of the staff has veterinary or bioscience backgrounds. Therefore a system which provided world class statistics at the drop of a menu was vital. The aim for all these staff is that with GenStat all the Brooke’s field centres will be independent and able to perform their own analysis, where previously the data was sent to UK consultants.

“When choosing a statistical programme we presented 3 different programmes to our field workers and let them decide which one they felt would be most suitable. The final decision, based on the ease with which data could be manipulated and the ability to clearly see how the programme would be used in our specific context, was unanimously in favour of GenStat.” Amanda Childs, Head of Risk Assessment, the Brooke.

GenStat has made an enormous difference to the Brooke’s ability to easily and quickly analyse their own data and in Amanda’s words has provided the opportunity to “bridge a huge gap” between the need to provide quality data analysis and the need to get that done in a way that is locally sustainable.

Our thanks to the Brooke for their help with this article. All photographs in this article are courtesy of the Brooke.

More information on the Brooke.

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