Invasive Species Compendium

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Abstract

Effect of adult male sterilization on the behavior and social associations of a feral polygynous ungulate: the horse.

Abstract

Castration is commonly used to control the behavior of companion animals and livestock, yet there have been few longitudinal studies of its effects. Despite the ubiquity of this surgery in ridden horses, the effects of castration (termed gelding in horses) have rarely been examined in a reproductive population. We tested effects of gelding on maintenance and social behaviors of individuals pre- and post-gelding, and in comparison to intact control adult males (2 to >16 years old) in both harem and bachelor status, we then tested how gelding affected association with mares (i.e., maintenance of a harem group) compared to intact controls, and any effects on bachelor social associations. We further explored any effects on foaling rate to assess potential impacts on population growth rate. We conducted this study over four years (2017-2020) at two Herd Management Areas (HMAs) in western Utah, USA: Conger and Frisco. We conducted demographic observations year round at both HMAs to record survival and foaling rate. We additionally recorded behavioral observations at Conger HMA. In December 2017, 27 adult males from Conger (42% of adult males in the population) were gelded and returned to the range with their social groups. Due to pre-treatment observations we were able to compare stallions of known status pre- and post-treatment (harem or bachelor), as well as gelded and intact males. We had no morbidity or mortality related to the gelding surgery and all males maintained good body condition throughout the study. There was no effect of gelding on maintenance behaviors (feeding, moving, and standing). There was no effect of gelding on frequency of agonistic behavior, and a non-significant tendency for less reproductive behavior in geldings; geldings showed more affiliative and less marking behavior. Age class and/or social status were better predictors of behavior than gelding. Over time fewer geldings maintained a harem, and their harem size declined during the study. Horses that were bachelors when gelded tended to remain as bachelors, whereas intact bachelors of the same cohort mostly attained a harem. Foaling rate at Conger was reduced in the year following treatment, but then returned to pre-treatment levels. From a welfare perspective gelding is safe to use in feral horses and has minimal effects on horse behavior and social interactions in a reproductive herd. Effectiveness for population growth control would likely require a larger proportion of males in the population to be castrated for longer-term effects on foaling rate.