Belief in animal emotion linked to better welfare in working equids

New international research highlights the benefits of a compassionate connection between humans and their horses, donkeys and mules

Working equids whose owners believe in their capacity to feel emotion have significantly better health and welfare outcomes than those whose owners do not, according to new research by England’s University of Portsmouth and the Donkey Sanctuary, an international animal welfare charity also based in England.

The study, referenced in a July 12 press release in Science Daily, is the first to show a link between the welfare of working equids–including donkeys, horses and mules–and the attitudes and beliefs of their owners in different countries and contexts around the world.

Better body condition, less lameness

Researchers visited equid-owning communities in Egypt, Mexico, Pakistan, Senegal, Spain and Portugal, where they carried out ​​​​welfare assessments. This included a questionnaire for owners about their beliefs, values and attitudes toward their ​animals​, as well as a ​detailed assessment​ of the equids’ ​welfare.

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, found animals whose owners believed they felt emotions or who had an emotional bond with them were in significantly better health and had higher body condition scores than those whose owners did not​,​ or who focused instead on ​how profitable or useful they were​.

Similarly, animals whose owners believed they could feel pain were much less likely to be lame. These relationships were evident ​across multiple​ countries​ with varying economic incomes.​ ​​​ ​

Common across cultures

Lead author Dr. Emily Haddy, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Portsmouth’s ​Center for Comparative and Evolutionary Psychology​, said: “We know people’s feelings toward their animals can impact their welfare, but we wanted to know if this differs across cultures. Our research involved equid-owning communities in six countries whose animals worked in a diverse range of contexts including agriculture, tourism and construction.

“​This​​ ​is the first study to link owner attitudes to the welfare of their working equids across multiple countries and contexts,” she continued. “Our findings highlight the importance of the relationship between owners and their animals, and its significant impact on animal health and welfare.”

Donkey pulls heavy load of firewood along road in Ethiopia
A donkey pulls a heavy load in Ethiopia. GettyImages/Goddard_Photography

One of the study’s co-authors is Dr. ​Faith Burden, who is also the Donkey Sanctuary’s executive director of Equine Operations. “We have long understood that donkeys and mules are sensitive and sentient beings who fare best when they are treated​ as individuals and​ with the kindness and respect they deserve,” she noted, adding, “This study provides further peer-reviewed, scientific evidence​ to support our work across the world​.

“What’s really exciting is these findings could inform and increase the efficacy of future welfare initiatives,” she continued. “For example, promoting emotional connection and awareness of animal sentience among owners of working equids could potentially influence attitudes and lead to improvements in the welfare of working equids around the world.”

Another co-author ​is Dr. Leanne Proops​, associate professor in Animal Behavior at the​ University of Portsmouth’s Department of Psychology​.​​​ “This is a fascinating study that highlights the link between attitudes to animal sentience and welfare,” she commented. “However, it’s important to avoid assumptions about the owners of animals who had poorer health and welfare indicators.

​​”​It’s possible these owners simply don’t have the resources to look after their animals as well, and because they don’t like to think of them suffering, they adjust their beliefs to think that their animals don’t feel pain. This is a well-documented psychological technique that people use to minimize psychological distress when their behavior and beliefs don’t align.

“This is a very important study that paves the way for further research to establish causality, and a greater understanding of compassion and animal welfare.”

Source:, with materials provided by University of Portsmouth




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