Dr. Malcolm Mitchell, of the Roslin Institute, and Dr. Peter Kettlewell, Silsoe Research Institute, brought a wide swath of experience in commercial animal transportation to the Equine Track at the Animal Transportation Association International conference in Vancouver in March.  Although his research has been mainly in pigs and poultry--it has definite indications for horses as we seek to improve trailer design and all aspects of transport for equines.

Dr. Mitchell began his presentation with the observation that stress in transit is a major welfare issue; he pointed out that the word “WELFARE” is derived from the meaning “to travel well.”  He also reminded the audience that the first published work on mass transportation of animals was documented in the Bible as Noah’s Ark, which obviously did not meet the stocking-density and many other aspects of modern requirements for animal care and safety.


There is growing global emphasis on legislation and regulations to ensure improvements in animal welfare and all aspects of animal care, transportation, and management.  Good examples are the OIE and EU regulations and guidance codes, their prominence in the media, and their implementation in the 27 member states of the EU.

The European Union Convention recognises animals as “sentient beings” and has developed policy objectives whose general purpose is to “ensure that animals do not endure avoidable pain or suffering and that the owners of animals are obliged to respect minimum welfare requirements. The incorporation of these ideals and principles in to the European Convention elevates animal welfare to the same status as “gender equality, social protection, race equality and the prevention of discrimination human health, sustainable development and consumer protection.

Science as a Foundation:

In Europe it has been proposed by the European Commission and EFSA that science is the foundation of all the new Animal Health and Welfare policies.  EC Commissioner for Agriculture Andrea Gavinelli is supportive of this effort, in relation to a review of the current animal transport regulation (EC No. 1/2005) “In order to achieve a baseline of our scientific understanding, a working group was established to perform a critical scientific review of all pertinent scientific literature since 2003, by species, and develop an official opinion based on this body of worldwide work”

Available research indicates that we can now quantify and measure many aspects of animal transportation characteristics e.g. thermal loads, motion, acceleration, vibration, impact, noise, air contaminants, restriction of behaviour, and fasting or withdrawal of water). Each of these potential challenges may impose a quantifiable stress upon the transported animals and research allows us to define the appropriate threshold for each stressors for each species and acceptable ranges and limits for those stressors. In turn this enables us to make better recommendations for care and transport. Such “Physiological Response Modelling” involves the use of control theory, looking at numerous variables and set points to determine homeostatic success (animal is able to compensate and easily regulate their body temperature, oxygen use, cardiovascular system, metabolic activity and other physiological stress indicators/markers and systems.

In order to maintain homeostasis in this wide range of physiological interacting systems animals must expend energy to provide and support the adaptive responses. This is regarded as homeostatic effort. Thus, to maintain body temperature and animal may pant or sweat, to maintain blood pressure in may increase heart rate or peripheral vasoconstriction and such physiological responses or homeostatic effort may be quantified. It is possible to characterise the integrated effect of any stressor e.g. during transport, in terms of the homeostatic success and effort of individual animals under study.

This approach underpins holistic, predictive, integrated physiological response modelling. Stressors may then be quantified in relation to homeostatic success--how well does the animal control a particular variable e.g. body temperature and how hard does it have to work to do so? If a variable is well controlled then this may be regarded as compensation but total failure of control may be termed decompensation. This approach allows us categorise challenges or stressors in relation the degree of stress imposed and risk to the animals’ wellbeing or welfare. A simple convention is to term stress mild, moderate or severe and these terms may be used to set useful and realistic limits and boundaries for defined stressors in regulations and codes of practice. 

Application of Research to Real World:

In animal transportation understanding of thermal micro-environments (temperature, humidity and air movement) inside vehicles, the principles of ventilation and air flow which underlie the distributions of thermal loads in transit and application of these principles to providing practicable solutions have proved very successful. However, there are examples where such reliable and applicable research has not been incorporated in to legislation and thus opportunities to improve animals’ welfare in transit may have been overlooked. One such example is the transport of poultry where the accepted research base has yet to be adopted as the basis for revised regulation. Recent studies have indicated that journey time in slaughter pigs may nor be as important in relation to welfare as journey quality and other factors including production system and vehicle standing times in terms of effects upon animal welfare and it is proposed that it is more important to address these issues than to change current recommendations for maximum journey durations.

Other research has indicated that some current recommendations or regulatory standards may be appropriate and that if transport is undertaken in accordance with current guidelines then there is little risk to the welfare of the animals. One such case is the temperature limits for pigs on long distance journeys where good practice and personnel, adequate ventilation and good vehicle design greatly reduce the risks of thermal stress and poor welfare even at temperatures outside the current prescribed range.

It is suggested that science can provide the sound reliable basis for pertinent and relevant legislation and regulations but may also support current rules and practices. Good, science is still the optimum way to understand animal stress and welfare and to provide the basis for improved practices, procedures, operational management and legislation. However where research supports the content and standards in current legislation it is perhaps more important to ensure good enforcement of the current rules than to commission and undertake research to “fine tune” the regulations. If the research indicates that current legislation can protect animals adequately, then "if it ain't broke don't fix it!!" 

In summary, Dr. Mitchell stated that enforcement of the current laws is a better use of our efforts than chasing new standards and defending attacks on transport legislation and research.