Opinion: Innovation improves animal welfare both at Stampede and in the field

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The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth is underway, and from the rodeo to the Indigenous Elbow River Camp to the agriculture exhibits, the Calgary Stampede is undoubtedly the world’s foremost celebration of the Western lifestyle. A big part of that, of course, is horses, cattle and other livestock. Alongside the early pioneers, these animals helped to build Alberta’s economy.

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Their value, however, is far more than simply economic. As those who work with large animals can attest, a special bond rooted in respect and affection quickly forms. As a result, animal welfare standards have significantly advanced over the years. The Stampede is a perfect example. Having long been a target of animal-rights campaigners, the Stampede has implemented one of the most comprehensive health and safety programs in the industry.

Under the Fitness to Compete program, every animal receives an observational veterinary inspection daily. The rodeo animals, chuckwagon horses and heavy horse pull competitors get even more thorough inspections. Rest days are also mandatory for all competing horses. If horses run for four consecutive days, they must be given two days off. If for any reason, at any time, an animal is identified as unfit to participate, they are removed from competition.

The changes haven’t just happened behind the scenes. The Stampede now uses modified rules in tie-down roping that allows calves to be released almost immediately. Competitors who wrestle steers down with splayed legs, or feet and heads facing in different directions, which prevents a safe fall, are penalized with a no-time result. While perhaps undetectable to the public, significant upgrades have also been made to the track to enhance safety.

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In its ongoing quest to improve animal welfare, the Stampede has partnered with a natural ally — the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Renaud Léguillette has spent years researching ways to improve the health, safety and performance of horses at the Stampede, including looking at track conditions and the effect of different footings on the impact on the legs. The goal of the project is to help the Stampede to optimize track conditions to improve safety.

Studies such as these are just the beginning. The university is in the process of developing a two-year animal welfare assessment program that will study the experiences of the rodeo animals, from the environments in which they are kept to how they are handled and moved. The hope is to further enhance the welfare of the four-legged stars of the Stampede.

As demonstrated by the groundbreaking work of the University of Calgary, Southern Albertan’s agrarian heritage has helped to make the city a Canadian hub for veterinary innovation. One area where local researchers are excelling is pain management. Forty years ago, pain management in food animals was an afterthought. Today, it is seen as an absolute necessity.

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Seventy per cent of Canada’s beef is raised in southern Alberta, so we have a particular responsibility to be trailblazers in this field. Pain management for cattle has evolved significantly in the past two decades, with scientists gaining a greater understanding of what pain looks like in an animal. Building on this work, local researchers are developing new treatments and devices to reduce pain and improve general well-being.

The future promises even greater advancements. Artificial intelligence, data analytics and machine learning are enabling researchers to monitor pain levels and treatment responses in real time. The insights generated by these technologies will help scientists better meet consumer preferences and market trends, including the growing demand for natural and organic solutions, and alternative therapies such as acupuncture and chiropractic care.

Social and ethical concerns — and simple compassion — demand better animal welfare practices. Calgary’s thriving veterinary innovation sector is helping to provide some of the solutions.

Just like the early pioneers who inspired Stampede, researchers are embracing Alberta’s spirit of innovation to protect and advance our cherished Western lifestyle.

Dr. Merle Olson is the founder and director of research and development of Solvet.

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