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Francesca Dai graduated in Veterinary Medicine in February 2012 with a thesis entitled “Evaluation of behavioural parameters related to chronic pain in donkeys (Equus Asinus): a preliminary study” (supervisor prof. Michela Minero). In September, she won a two-year scholarship at University of Milan for the definition of farm animal welfare indicators in collaboration with Public Authorities. In July 2017 she obtained the specialization diploma cum laude in Applied Ethology and Animal Welfare defending a thesis entitled “Ensuring welfare of donkeys in Europe” (supervisor prof. Elisabetta Canali). Now she is a resident at the European College of Animal Welfare and Behavioural Medicine.


After graduating as a DVM at Milan University, I attended the Specialisation School in Applied Ethology and Animal Welfare and got a PhD in Animal Science and Applied Ethology. In 2006 I received the diploma of the European College of Animal Welfare and Behavioural Medicine and I currently work as an Associate Professor at the Department of Veterinary Medicine. Horses and donkeys have always represented a genuine passion for me and an area of particular professional interest is the development and validation of non-invasive equine welfare indicators. I will work on this topic together with Francesca, who has joined the 33rd class of the VAS Ph.D. Course. Information about my group and publications can be found at http://sites.unimi.it/animalwelfare/


Title: Indicators to assess equine welfare on farm and during transport

A truthful assessment of welfare is a prerequisite for predicting the impact of any actions intended to improve the quality of life of equines. On-farm welfare assessment protocols for equines have been published in the scientific literature (i.e. Dalla Costa et al., 2016); however, there are still a number of important challenges to be addressed: A) validation of non-invasive welfare indicators under different management conditions (e.g. transport); B) reliability improvement through the development of an effective training program for new assessors.

  1. Among the management conditions investigated, transport will be considered with special emphasis. The present project encompasses a multi-disciplinary approach to:
    • investigate if adopting a feasible training procedure reduces transport related stress in both horses and donkeys, as measured by the considered indicators. We hypothesise that effectively training to loading procedures using positive reinforcement, before their first exposure to transport, mitigates the transport related stress in equines. To test this assumption, we will compare physiological and behavioural indicators of trained and naïve equines before, during and after transport;
    • study concurrent validity of equine welfare indicators, answering the question on how they relate with other physiological measures, including cortisol evaluation in saliva, hair and faeces. Infrared thermography will be used to detect changes in peripheral blood flow as a response to stress. A collaboration will be fostered with researchers expert in miRNomic, in order to evaluate miRNAs related to transport stress in horses.

The study will be carried out in the frame of the Ricerca corrente “Metodiche non invasive per la valutazione della risposta allo stress da trasporto in cavalli sportivi e da carne”, with the support of Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie.

  1. Harmonized data collection is essential to obtain a reliable picture of equine welfare conditions. Therefore, effective education on how to assess and score welfare indicators reliably is paramount. The present project aims to determine the efficacy of online and face-to-face training on how to assess and score welfare indicators, using a combination of theory and practical experience, measured in terms of intra- and inter-observer reliability.

The study will be carried out in the frame of the Research “Training on the AWIN welfare assessment protocol for donkeys and on-farm data collection with a dedicated smartphone app”, with the support of The Donkey Sanctuary.

1. Unloading of a horse

2. Welfare assessment on a donkey