Cortisol response to road transport stress in calm and nervous stallions

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Cortisol may be useful as a marker in predicting how an animal will respond to stressful stimuli, thus providing information on animal's temperament. To quantify the level of transport stress and the effect of temperament on the adrenocortical response, the change in circulating cortisol levels was evaluated in 84 healthy experienced thoroughbred and crossbred stallions, mean age 11.4 ± 4.5 years old, after road transport in a commercial trailer (6 horses per load, stocking density: 2 m2/horse), over mean distances of 210 ± 11.8 km for about 3 hours. Several experienced caretakers were asked to complete 2 questionnaires, one that used a 5-point scale to subjectively evaluate temperament and another that used a 3-point scale to assess tendencies in response to ordinary care and daily management. The scores for the latter were defined as follows: a score of 1 indicated that the horse had never or rarely troubled the caretaker during management, 2 occasionally, and 3 usually. On this basis, the subjects were distinguished between calm and nervous stallions. Blood samples were taken same daytime (8.00 am), in single box, immediately before loading, then after transport and unloading. Serum cortisol concentrations were analyzed in duplicate by immunoenzymatic assay. Compared with basal levels, cortisol increases were observed in both calm (P < 0.001) and nervous (P < 0.05) stallions after transport. Repeated-measures analysis of variance showed significant effects of transport on cortisol changes (P < 0.001). Nervous subjects showed lower (P < 0.01) cortisol levels than did calm subjects after transport, and basal cortisol levels did not differ between calm and nervous subjects. No significant differences (P > 0.05) between different age, breed, and orientation were detected.

The results showed that temperament could influence the adrenocortical responses of stallions after short-term transportation. The presence of the same staff for handling, loading, confinement, and unloading, the same veterinarian taking all blood samples, and the presence of cospecifics did not reduce the response to short transport stress both in calm and nervous stallions already accustomed to transport. Lower cortisol concentrations in nervous subjects might be because of failure of the adrenal cortex to respond normally to transport stress. Moreover, signs of transport stress were less pronounced in nervous stallions.

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