The surprising truth about branding horses

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Seven years ago yesterday, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. After the levees failed, my husband and I traveled to the rescued-animal staging area in Gonzales, LA. Hundreds of animals were being rescued and brought there each day. One thing we remember vividly is a horse whose person had spray painted a cell phone number on his side before leaving the animal behind. It was effective and unique insurance. If companion animals had been routinely microchipped prior to the disaster, however, getting pets back to their people would have been much easier.

Palomino  Belgian Quarter Horse standing in grass

We hope whoever adopts Harley from the Lafayette Animal Control Center gives him a microchip!

Seeing the phone number on that horse came back to mind recently when I read an article about the unreliability of branding horses. To me, using a hot iron to brand any animal for identification is barbaric, so I’m glad that there’s now evidence that branding is an unreliable method for distinguishing one animal from another. Microchipping appears to be more reliable and far less harmful.

Many brands are illegible
The Veterinary Journal recently published the results from a study of equine brand legibility conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna. According to the abstract, the team brought in three individuals to measure the effectiveness of hot-iron brands. Their task was to read the brands on 248 horses competing at an equestrian event, as well as 28 horses who had been euthanized for other reasons.

The horse brands consisted of a symbol for the breed and a two-digit individual identification number. All three experts correctly identified 84% of the breed symbols. However, only 40% of the individual identification numbers could be read accurately by all three of the experts.

Brands can cause the same damage as third-degree burns
The study then examined the markings on 28 euthanized horses. On most of the horses the area around the brands showed signs of tissue damage consistent with third degree burns. One of the researchers, Jörg Aurich, even stated “There really isn’t any reason to continue to mark horses in this outdated way,” reports the Environmental News Network.

Of course, some kind of identification is necessary at times — as I saw during Katrina. Fortunately, technology has given us a far more humane ID method: the microchip.

How do microchips work?
A microchip is about the size of a grain of rice and contains a unique identification code. The microchip is injected subcutaneously by a veterinarian or veterinary technician. Horses are injected along the left side of the neck, about an inch below the mane and midway between the poll and the withers. No anesthetic is required, and it’s about as painless as a vaccination. That’s certainly far superior to burning an animal’s skin!

The ID number is entered into a microchip registry, maintained by the manufacturer, along with the guardian’s contact information. When a need for identification arises, a scanner is passed over the animal’s skin to read the unique ID, the registry is contacted, and the guardian’s information is obtained.

It’s time to start microchipping all companion animals, horses included. Read more about microchipping.