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Quantifying poor working equid welfare in Nepalese brick kilns using a welfare assessment tool
  1. Joao Brandao Rodrigues1,
  2. Rebekah J E Sullivan1,2,
  3. Andrew Judge1,
  4. Stuart Lee Norris1 and
  5. Faith A Burden3
  1. 1 Research and Operational Support, The Donkey Sanctuary, Sidmouth, Devon, UK
  2. 2 Veterinary Department, The Donkey Sanctuary, Sidmouth, Devon, UK
  3. 3 Equine Operations, The Donkey Sanctuary, Sidmouth, Devon, UK
  1. Correspondence to Professor Joao Brandao Rodrigues; joao.rodrigues{at}


Background Across Asia the brick-kiln industry is expanding. In Nepal, urban dwelling has increased in recent years, raising requirement for low-cost, mass produced bricks to meet the population needs. Working equids (WEs) play a key role in non-mechanised kilns. Assessing the welfare of these equids is the starting point to addressing concerns. In line with One Welfare principles, the health and welfare of animals, people and the kiln environment are interlinked.

Materials and methods In December 2019, 119 WEs were assessed in seven brick kilns in three districts of Nepal, using the Equid Assessment Research and Scoping tool, developed by The Donkey Sanctuary. The objective was to measure welfare at the start of the brick kiln season.

Results Horses were the predominant species of WE. Hazardous housing and environments were seen in all kilns. Behaviour responses were mixed. Owner responses and animal examination indicated poor working conditions. Signs of harmful practice were evident in most animals. The majority were underweight, with poor general health, skin alterations and musculoskeletal issues.

Conclusion The welfare of equids prior to starting brick kiln work is poor, posing significant concerns for the actual working period. Intervention to enhance health and welfare is required.

  • working equids
  • brick kilns
  • welfare assessment
  • EARS tool
  • equid welfare
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Globally the human population is booming; an estimated 7.8 billion in 2020 and growing by approximately 1.05 per cent annually. United Nations data1 indicate that by 2050, 68 per cent of the world population will be urban dwellers, creating challenges for adequate infrastructure, housing, and maintenance of healthy environments. Sixty per cent of the current global population live in Asia2 and over the next three decades more than 90 per cent1 of the urban population increase is anticipated to occur in Asia. Consequently, there is huge demand for low-cost, mass-produced bricks. Brickmaking has been described as the backbone of urban industry across Asia, with 86.67 per cent of global brick production occurring here.3

Nepal, ranked a low-income country,4 is no exception to the trend in urban migration. Although 80 per cent of the population still live rurally, the urban population has doubled over the last 20 years.5

The construction industry contributes approximately 10–11 per cent to the Nepal GDP.6 Official data estimated nearly 1300 brick kilns operating in Nepal,7 mainly traditional seasonal kilns (typically operating December to mid-May), requiring little investment to set up but labour intensive to run.3 The industry relies on low-paid, poorly skilled migrant workers and their equids, many of whom cross the open border between India and Nepal or arrive illegally from other neighbouring countries. Estimates suggest that over 200,000 workers, including illegally working children, supported by an estimated 2200 working equids (WEs), gain seasonal employment in the brick industry every year.8

Donkeys, mules and horses are used to share the load of brick carrying and transportation, reducing physical demands placed on their human handlers and significantly increasing the output and income of a kiln.

Prior experience with WEs in the kilns, arising during earlier visits by the authors, had highlighted serious welfare concerns. This study presents data from welfare assessments performed on WEs before the start of the brick kiln season, in December 2019. The objective was to systematically evaluate the welfare pre-season and post-season, with the aim to subsequently provide evidence-based intervention advice for improving welfare. At study inception, it was planned to complete end of season assessments in May 2020, but the Covid-19 pandemic prevented travel of the assessment team. Nepalese authorities ordered the complete cessation of kiln work in March 2020 in response to the pandemic. However, the data obtained from the pre-season assessment focuses attention on the welfare status at this point in time and are worthy of report.

With brick kiln operation having ramifications across human, animal and environmental health, any measures taken to positively intervene benefit from being undertaken through a One Welfare perspective,9 with multi-disciplinary collaboration essential to address concerns across these inter-linked health areas.

Materials and methods

In December 2019, a trained team from The Donkey Sanctuary (TDS) visited kilns in the Kathmandu valley in partnership with Animal Nepal (AN), an organisation that performs equine outreach work in the kilns.10 Prior knowledge of AN by kiln owners facilitated access and authorisation to assess the equids. Translation was provided by native Nepalese speakers from AN.

Convenience sampling of the kilns was necessary due to animals arriving at different weeks to the kilns in the preseason period. AN selected kilns where animals were known to have arrived. In an attempt to reduce bias, seven different kilns were chosen and every equid present in each kiln was assessed.

One hundred and nineteen WEs belonging to 12 different owners were assessed across the kilns. The number of equids per owner was normally distributed across the kilns with a median number of nine equids per owner (lower quartile=6.75, upper quartile=12), in three districts: Lalitpur, Dhading and Nuwakot (figure 1).

Figure 1

Distribution of kilns and type of equid transportation (cart/pack) in the three regions visited. Each kiln only uses one type of transportation system. The five kilns with pack equids had 76.5 per cent of the equids assessed (n=91), with the remaining 23.5 per cent (n=28) of the population found in the two kilns using carts.

Equids were assessed using the Equid Assessment, Research and Scoping (EARS) tool, developed by TDS.11 12 EARS is a questionnaire-based method of collecting welfare assessment data in all contexts, designed to obtain individual information about an equid or a group of equids and the surrounding environment. EARS consists of a bank of almost 300 questions, organised into 19 indicators. The questions were developed and tested over a period of 3 years, using input from experts who are experienced in working with equids around the globe. Bespoke protocols can be built for assessing welfare in different contexts, and by using a standardised set of questions, welfare may be objectively and systematically recorded.

Assessors used a specific brick kiln protocol, systematically following the EARS guidelines established for each individual question, to ensure reliability. This protocol was composed of 106 questions, from 13 indicators: Initial information, Housing, Condition of the welfare assessment, General identification, Behaviour, Specific identification, Working conditions, Harmful practices, Body condition, Skin system, Musculoskeletal system, Health status and Final general questions.

The same questions are asked about each equid and the questions and order are detailed in the Results section. Question responses were quantified through calculating prevalence of each possible response. Assessment forms were completed on tablets using the ODK (Open Data Kit) Collect app.13

All data analysis was performed using R14 and RStudio.15 Percentages were calculated as proportion of total population at each location or as a proportion of the whole population assessed. Data preparation and graphic representation of the results were created using R package.16 Data relating to meteorological conditions for the last 5 years were extracted using the Darksky’s API (Application Programming Interface).17


General demographic data

Of the 119 equids, 3.4 per cent were donkeys (n=4), 63 per cent horses (n=75) and 33.6 per cent (n=40) hybrids (mules or hinnies). 50.4 per cent were up to five years old (0.8 per cent less than one year old; 19.3 per cent between one and three years old; and 30.3 per cent between three and five years old), 40.3 per cent were between six and 20 years of age, and 8.4 per cent were at least 21 years of age. The age of one equid (0.8 per cent) was not assessed.

Housing and environment

All shelters available were assessed in terms of size and numbers housed (table 1).

Table 1

Housing results per shelter assessed, including the area available per equid

There was no bedding material present in any of the shelters. All equids were kept inside shelters when not working, usually tethered close to the feeding troughs, except for one kiln where equids were loose inside.

Water intake was restricted to certain periods of the day, with animals drinking from natural streams in the surrounding areas of the kiln, or from buckets located outside the shelter. Provided water was dirty in appearance.

All shelters and surrounding environment assessed had obvious hazards, including collapsing brick walls, broken feeding troughs, broken glass and exposed electrical wires.

In the Kathmandu Valley and outlying areas, the brick kiln season runs from December to mid-May. Over the last 5 years the mean temperature through the brick kiln season was 11.5°C (sd ±4.7°C). The mean humidity over the same period has been 70 per cent, (sd ±16.4 per cent). The mean cloud cover over this period was 43.1 per cent (sd ±23.7 per cent). At the time of surveying, the weather conditions at the brick kilns were within the range of meteorological conditions observed over the last 5 years.


The behavioural aspects assessed were: general attitude of the equids at a distance, owners’ behaviour in relation with the equid, interaction when holding the animals, response to the observer approach and presence of signs of fear and distress.

Of the equids assessed, 88.2 per cent demonstrated a positive behaviour from a distance (at ease – relaxed, calm and/or resting or alert and actively interested in surroundings), with the remaining 11.8 per cent demonstrating negative behaviour (agitated or aggressive, hyper-reactive/hyper-vigilant or apathetic, depressed, withdrawn).

During the observer approach procedure, 20.2 per cent had a positive reaction towards the observer, 34.5 per cent had a neutral reaction (not moving at all), and 42 per cent had a negative reaction (moves head away from observer, or moves whole body away when observer approaches, or aggressive behaviour towards observer). Overall, 38.2 per cent of equids showed at least one clear sign of fear and distress.

Table 2 presents the behavioural aspects assessed with possible responses and prevalence.

Table 2

Percentage of responses to different questions and options (behaviour), observed in the seven brick kilns

Working conditions

Despite kiln work not having commenced, assessors were able to collect data based on information provided through discussion with owners.

Seasonal or continuous work

Of the equids assessed, 89.9 per cent are solely used for the brick season. The remainder have a secondary role, mainly transporting construction materials and food by cart in the home regions of the owners.

Age when equids started to work

Almost 46 per cent of owners had no information regarding age of their equids when commencing kiln work, whilst 42.4 per cent reported that equids started working life at less than three years old, and 6.8 per cent at less than one year old. Only 9.3 per cent of equids started to work once young adults/adults (> three years old).

Practices during working period

The majority (96.6 per cent) of equids work 6–9 hours per day, either 6 or 7 days a week (78.2 per cent and 20.2 per cent, respectively).

To estimate load bearing by each individual equid, assessors estimated equid weight based on body condition and height, and weighed cooked and uncooked bricks in each kiln. Body weight of the equids assessed was estimated between 140 and 230 kg. Information about the number of bricks carried per equid was also recorded;67.9 per cent of pack equids carried over 50 per cent of their body weight, with 32.1 per cent carrying between 25 and 50 per cent of their body weight.

As equids were not observed in actual work it was not possible to assess how the owner communicates with/drives the animal while working.

In those kilns where packsaddles were used, assessment of harness was undertaken. The generic term ‘harness’ used in this paper includes all types of equipment in direct contact with the equid. All saddles presented a clear lack of gullet space in the withers region, due to the ‘U’ shaped format of the padding system (figure 2).

Figure 2

Traditional packsaddle used in the Nepalese brick kilns. Note the absence of gullet space in the withers region (white arrow).

Practices during resting period

Conversations with equid owners indicated that once work began, equids would have a lunchtime rest of approximately one hour, having shade provision as they are moved to the shelters to access food and water. Packsaddles are not removed from animals during lunch rest but cart harness, where used, are removed.

Harmful practices

Signs of hobbling and tethering (indicated by scars on equids) were present in 80 per cent of the population, and recorded as signs of harmful practices (figure 3).

Figure 3

Horse and hybrid tethered inside the shelter. Note the presence of scars in the pasterns, fetlocks and cannon bones of the horse, due to tethering.

One donkey (0.8 per cent) was observed with an amputated tail and one hybrid (0.8 per cent) was observed with signs of firing.

Body condition (BC)

The majority (80 per cent) of equids were underweight (46 per cent thin/moderate and 34 per cent very thin/poor). Only 20 per cent presented in ideal BC. Figure 4 shows a breakdown of BC score by species. The diet provided was similar in all seven kilns, mainly composed of cereal grains, legumes/pulses, chopped fibre, wheat and maize bran. It was not possible to assess the daily quantity provided to each equid. As the animals were not yet working, they had chance to browse in the surrounding areas of the shelters, but still having less than 14 hours a day with access to fibre. During working season, animals would only be able to browse one day weekly, if the owners elect to take a day’s rest.

Figure 4

Body condition observed in the 119 equids.

The skin system

The majority (99.2 per cent) of equids presented with at least one type of skin system alteration: 96 per cent with scars, 93 per cent with alopecia, 40 per cent with open wounds, 2.5 per cent with swellings, and 0.8 per cent with presumed sarcoid.

Likely causes (based on the assessors’ professional opinion) for skin system alterations were similar for all seven kilns and summarised in table 3.

Table 3

Prevalence of possible causes of skin system alterations

Musculoskeletal system

Assessors examined each equid for musculoskeletal lesions. Lame equids were observed in all seven kilns; indeed 47.9 per cent of equids assessed presented different degrees of lameness at walk.

Table 4 summarises the prevalence of lesions of the musculoskeletal system.

Table 4

Percentage of responses for different questions and options related to musculoskeletal system

At least one conformational defect was present in 81.5 per cent of equids (figure 5). Pain in the vertebral column region was present in 70.6 per cent of equids (figure 6).

Figure 5

Different conformation defects observed.

Figure 6

Results for different pressure tests in the five vertebral column regions. Three different tests were performed: light touch (1 finger), gentle pressure and then heavy pressure (using the hand).The assessment of each specific vertebral region was stopped as soon as a positive pain response was obtained.

General health

General health status is estimated by the assessor at the end of completion of the set of questions, based upon the overall answers to the previous questions stated here, and also includes questions related to abnormal breathing/respiratory disorder/disease, eye, nasal and urogenital discharges, signs of diarrhoea, unhealthy coat and abdominal pain (figure 7).

Figure 7

General health status of the equids. When assessed by species, 58.7 per cent of the horses were in a poor state, 37.3 per cent in a fair state, and 4 per cent in a good state of health. Of the hybrids assessed, 42.5 per cent were in a poor state, 40 per cent in a fair state, and 17.5 per cent in a good state of health. Of the four donkeys 50 per cent presented in a good state and 50 per cent in a fair state of health.

Normal breathing pattern was present in 92 per cent of equids. At least one obvious sign of illness was shown by 38.7 per cent of equids (figure 8).

Figure 8

Presence of obvious signs of illness.


Increasing awareness of WE welfare assessment tools and implications for interventional assistance are apparent in recently published literature.11 12 18–25 The pre-season results obtained in this study present a valid source of information to document areas of concern affecting WEs in Nepalese brick kilns. As only seven kilns in the Kathmandu valley took part, it cannot be said that these data are representative of pre-season equid welfare across all kilns. However, these results, particularly when viewed in light of other studies of equids in brick kilns19 21 do provide an insight into challenges posed by working in the kilns and demonstrate the use of the EARS tool.

At the beginning of each season, equid owners construct temporary shelters, in which animals and people share living space. Only one kiln had a permanent shelter. In terms of housing, a bedded or comfortable resting area, with adequate indoor/covered shelter space per equid is important for equid welfare.26 There was no bedding material in any of the shelters, so this case study used the minimum values of reference for bedding area (m2) used by TDS on its farms, as the minimum area per animal. This area is the minimum space required for comfort in a stable/shelter, and is equid size dependent. None of the shelters were within the TDS minimum values of reference when considering numbers and size of equids present (table 1). Limited shelter space may lead to equid–equid aggression and injury. Shelters in kilns F, A and E were the only ones with the appropriate minimum height to ensure good ventilation, which is paramount for maintenance of respiratory health.27

The presence of hazards were identified as potential threats to the health and welfare of equids and humans. This issue should be addressed in training and education sessions given by AN to kiln workers. As part of AN’s ongoing education programme, the authors also recommend that the issues presented by lack of shelter space are taught to kiln workers, with the aim of larger shelters being constructed the following year – this being feasible due to the temporary nature of the seasonal shelters.

In this sample population, equid behaviour in response to human contact was not a major concern, with low levels of aversive behaviours demonstrated both when assessed from a distance or with the assessor close to the animals. Hybrids showed the higher number of reactions perceived as more averse. In a study focused on hybrids’ behaviour, McLean et al 28 identified that mule owners and handlers find it easier to interact with their animal when compared to allowing a stranger to do so. Therefore, it is possible that the presence of the assessors, assumed as strangers by the mules, explain the results obtained.

Owner behaviour was acceptable when holding the equids, but assessors observed poor handling skills when owners were otherwise communicating with their equid, including aggressive interactions when needing to drive the equids. Head-collars were not seen, instead a rope around the neck was used to drag the equids, alongside hitting with sticks. Young children handled and interacted with equids in a similar way to that observed in adults, and it is hypothesised that they learn bad practices from the adults. Rough handling compromises behaviour and is likely to lead to health and welfare issues. The pain observed in the sacral region during musculoskeletal system assessment may be linked with this excessive use of sticks. Further information, through observation of the working routine, is needed for clarification.

In a similar study, Ali et al 23 investigated the prevalence of skin wounds in equids in Egyptian brick kilns. Skin wounds were ascribed to both ill-fitting harness and aggressive human handling. Many of the handlers in that study were children aged eight to 18 years of age and hybrids had a greater incidence of injury (presumed inflicted by human handling). Hybrids were perceived by their handlers to be innately aggressive and thus requiring firm handling, yet, the authors identified that mule aggression decreased when handled by older, more experienced adults. Whilst this contrasts with our hypothesis that children learn poor handling techniques from adults, it serves to illustrate that attitudes towards equid behaviour, particularly hybrids, varies with context. Hence, tailored practical interventional advice must take account of each individual situation.

Working conditions described in these Nepalese kilns were very labour intensive for humans and equids. The load carried by the equids is high, considering the size of the animals, BC and general health registered here precommencing actual work. Additionally, the tendency to work animals at young ages, when skeletally immature, risks musculoskeletal injury.29 Furthermore, poor packsaddle fit, design and/or incorrect positioning was suspected as a cause of back pain, which can lead to poor performance and reduced ability to work.30

As equids were not observed at work, assessors could not determine if intended brick loads would be distributed evenly over the weight-bearing surface. However, five owners (one per kiln using packsaddles) demonstrated how bricks are loaded and in those cases the weight was distributed evenly. The major issue with the packsaddle system assessed was the lack of a clear gullet space in the withers region, as described in figure 2. Riding and packsaddles should present a clear gullet space,30 avoiding contact and pressure points along the spine, decreasing the possibility of pain and skin lesions here. It is also suspected that poor design may interfere with the normal locomotion of the equids, as equids were observed with the head and neck levelled/lower than the shoulders, as soon as the packsaddle was put in place, purported as a self-protective mechanism to avoid pressure from the padding system.

Tethering equids overnight in the stable (and/or during the working period) is common practice in kilns in many countries. Tethering risks serious injuries, being associated with skin and musculoskeletal injuries and should be discouraged.27 A recent study in kilns in India, using the EARS tool, identified signs of tethering and hobbling in all 219 donkeys assessed.21 Another study performed in India,31 highlighted morbidity arising from hobbling and tethering, adversely affecting equids and limiting full working capacity. Tether use is not confined to low-income countries. Use of metal chain hobbles in Spain and Portugal has resulted in distal limb injuries,20 indicating that this is a global issue.

Other harmful practices were identified in only two equids. Contrastingly, other studies worldwide show a higher incidence of harmful practices, either used for identification and/or based on cultural or therapeutic beliefs.18 25 32 A 78.4 per cent prevalence of muzzle mutilation was found in a study of cart donkeys used in waste management in Pakistan,33 with the owners of the belief that such practice improves the breathing capacity of the equids during heavy work. Therefore, different harmful practices are an issue across communities relying on WEs globally, and this needs to be considered when building community based interventions.

BC is an indicator of health and nutritional status23 and impacts on an equid’s work capacity. As 80 per cent of equids were underweight, this suggests serious nutritional deficiencies, notwithstanding possible co-morbidities, including endoparasites. Equids are naturally grazers, requiring ad-lib access to forage/fibre for the majority of the day to optimise health.26 34 The restricted daily access to fibre has negative implications for the dental, gastrointestinal health and mental wellbeing of the equids.

High prevalence of poor BC has been recorded in welfare assessments performed in other WE studies,21 22 with a similar percentage (72 per cent) of underweight donkeys observed by Watson et al 21 in the aforementioned study of donkeys in Indian kilns. Carts and packsaddles are designed to fit equids in good BC. Burden et al,35 in a study focused on WEs in rural Mexico, described that donkeys with lower BC had a higher incidence of back sores and noted that many animals were forced to work despite being in poor condition. This highlights the importance of focussing advice around the importance of good BC and appropriately adjusted harness for WE.

A high prevalence of skin system alterations is a common feature amongst WEs globally.35 36 Open wound prevalence has been estimated at 85 per cent in a previous analysis of WE welfare in Nepal.33 Rayner et al 18 described a skin wound prevalence of 56.1 per cent across a population of 148 working donkeys in Tanzania, correlating the use of heavy yoke-type harness (primarily designed for oxen) and superficial dorsal neck wounds. Burn et al 37 concluded that equids used in brick transport were 2.5 times more likely to have moderate/deep skin lesions than those used for other purposes, these equids also presenting with the lowest BC scores similar to the situation documented in Mexico35 as previously discussed.

In this study the prevalence of open wounds was much lower, however the equids were not yet in work and the extremely high prevalence of scars requires attention. Presumptively, the scars observed in this study bear evidence of skin wounds sustained during previous working seasons. Based on the location of scars, the assessors assumed that the scars were directly related with poor use of harness equipment, or living conditions (including signs of hobbling and tethering). These data indicate the need for further comprehensive evaluation of the harness system in the Nepalese brick kilns.

Living conditions and equipment were respectively the first and second possible causes for both alopecia and open wounds. The lack of bedding material in any shelter may result in an increased frequency of alopecia over joints and extremities as the animals have little protection when in contact with a lying surface. Additionally, owners reported that some open wounds were due to recent transportation in overcrowded trucks for periods of up to 48 hours, with equid–equid interaction (bites) during transportation reported as another cause for alopecia and open wounds. The Ministry of Livestock Development – Government of Nepal, published in 2016 an Animal Welfare Directive, in which the conditional requirements for transport of live animals are detailed.38 However, the transportation conditions observed led the authors to conclude that the conditions required by Nepalese law are not met in the case of animals transported to brick kilns, representing another important welfare issue that needs to be addressed through education and training programmes.

Musculoskeletal lesions were recorded in equids in all kilns assessed, which is in accordance with findings observed in other WE populations: a retrospective study37 performed in nine developing countries, including 10,843 WEs involved in varied roles in urban and rural environments, reported musculoskeletal issues as the most prevalent problems overall.

The majority of equids assessed in this study came from a 6-month period of non-work, so the observed lameness is purported due to cumulative lesions related to chronic problems. Swollen joints and swelling of flexor tendons may also be directly related with reported recent long distance transport. Pain in the thoracic and lumbar regions may be directly related with the harness if poorly constructed and fitted.30

Good conformation is important for healthy musculoskeletal function, such that equids are able to perform work effectively.29 The authors propose that this is not taken into account when breeding/buying these animals, due to the high prevalence of conformational defects observed in the presented population.

Overall, general health status of the equids is poor, which is particularly concerning given that data obtained was preseason. Another study focused on animal welfare in Nepal39 found that standards are generally extremely poor, with those WE in the kilns deemed to be underfed, dehydrated and worked to exhaustion, after which they are often left to die an inhumane death. Contrastingly, Watson et al 21 reported better general health in the donkeys in brick kilns in India: 24 per cent poor, 57 per cent fair and 19 per cent good. Therefore, the species of WE may influence susceptibility to certain health problems, as donkeys and hybrids are perceived as more tolerant and robust than horses, (which were the majority of equids in this case study), to harsh working and nutritional conditions.37 This increased susceptibility is likely to be reflected throughout the seasons, in that a more susceptible horse will be in poor condition preseason, as a reflection of the poor condition it is in throughout its life.

The low percentage of donkeys in the equid population present in the kilns assessed is remarkable. AN reported a continuously falling number of donkeys over the last few years, consistent with Food and Agriculture Organization global donkey population data.40 The authors believe this may be linked with a large-scale global trade in donkey skin, to produce a traditional Chinese medicine called ‘ejiao’, observed in recent years, indicating a demand of approximately 4.8 million skins annually,41 42 but further studies are needed. Increases in the market value of donkeys, surpassing the price of hybrids and horses, may explain the low number of donkeys observed in the kilns.

Despite the lack of end of season data, the results obtained are adequate to begin collaborative efforts to improve animal welfare, as welfare assessments in the kilns occurred alongside AN representatives. The authors suggest that long-term success of any intervention is highest if external organisations facilitate, rather than dictate, measures for improvement, as previous prolonged attempts to enhance equid welfare in brick kilns have not met with long-term success.21

Luna and Tadich43 reviewed assessment of human psychological attributes in relation to WE welfare concluding that such assessment is critical. Developing welfare assessment tools alongside enhanced understanding of human–animal interactions and human behaviour change could prove pivotal in building relationships with all involved in the kilns, such that long-lasting success in raised welfare standards can be achieved.

The Nepalese brick kilns present challenges across animal, human and environmental health sectors. As such, a unified One Welfare approach9 to tackling the issues apparent is called for. Attempts to improve animal welfare without due consideration of human welfare are likely to be futile. Watson et al 21 acknowledged the distressing state of health in human kiln workers calling for collaboration between human and animal welfare NGOs. Such collaboration could streamline resources to achieve higher standards of health for all. The financial plight of kiln workers cannot be ignored, as working agreements with kiln owners often consist of bonded labour,44 forcing workers to push themselves and their animals to physical and mental limits to earn sufficient wages. Such exploitation is a global public health concern.45 Facilitating healthy WEs is one step in improving livelihoods and tackling the financial hardship of the kiln workers.

Good education is a factor in resolution of health and welfare issues. Education of school-age children regarding good animal welfare practice has shown some success in reducing animal maltreatment in other countries46–48 and could play a role here in improving WE welfare. Improved equid health is crucial to the longevity of the equid’s working life, which in turn promotes income-earning potential for a family. Children from families that are more financially sound may be better placed to attend educational settings, thus further indicating the connections between human and animal welfare.

The seasonal nature of the brick kiln industry and consequent migration of people and animals nationally and internationally poses significant disease risk challenges. Health monitoring of a migrant population is inconsistent to non-existent, such that emergence of disease may go unchecked until full outbreaks are apparent. Outbreaks of diseases, including zoonoses such as glanders, are of health and socioeconomic concern and may have disastrous consequences for the human and animal workforce49 and the Nepalese economy.

The toll borne by the environment is worthy of mention. A report from the World Health Organization50 indicates measures of air quality in urban areas of Nepal can be as high as 10 times the recommended level. Brick kiln operation significantly contributes to poor air quality. Air pollution at these levels is deleterious to the health of the human population, with noted significant increases in non-communicable respiratory diseases51 and increased rate of premature births, particularly amongst kiln workers and their families, who may already be in poor health. Additionally, the authors propose that the incidence of nasal and ocular discharge in the assessed equid population may be partially explained by this high level of environmental irritants.


This study is the first to highlight the poor health status of equids before they even begin in the kilns. These data will help to focus interventions at a different stage of the equid’s life, for, if health prior to commencing work can be improved, it follows that overall welfare will benefit. Further studies, using the EARS tool to assess welfare during and at the end of the working season, involving a greater cohort of kilns, will assist in building a picture of equid welfare across Nepal. Repeat evaluation after any interventions to improve welfare have been put in place will enable objective assessment of intervention efficacy.

Although human health assessment was not an objective of this study, the authors are keen to build on other work which has suggested that improving human welfare is essential if animal welfare is to be improved. Further studies, co-examining health of animal and human brick kiln workers are needed. There is sufficient evidence already to conclude that WE welfare in brick kilns is poor. Research should now focus on methods to successfully improve health and welfare using a collaborative One Health, One Welfare approach.


The authors would like to thank Animal Nepal for their help during data collection and equid owners for their time and participation.


View Abstract


  • JBR and RJES are joint first authors.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Ethics approval UK guidelines for the humane treatment of animals were used during this study. Non-invasive techniques were used to assess the equids involved. All participants gave verbal informed consent for inclusion. The study was conducted in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki, and the protocol approved by the Executive Board of The Donkey Sanctuary UK.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement Data are available upon reasonable request. All data relevant to the study are included in the article or uploaded as supplementary information. Research data stored in the The Donkey Sanctuary main database, and available on request. Please contact SLN for further information.

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