Merkies, K., Ready, C., Farkas, L. et al. 2019. Eye blink rates and eyelid twitches as a non-invasive measure of stress in the domestic horse. Animals 9(58), 62.
Physiological changes provide indices of stress responses, however, behavioural measures may be easier to determine. Spontaneous eye blink rate has potential as a non-invasive indicator of stress. Eyelid movements, along with heart rate (HR) and behaviour, from 33 horses were evaluated over four treatments: (1) control—horse in its normal paddock environment; (2) feed restriction—feed was withheld at regular feeding time; (3) separation—horse was removed from visual contact with their paddock mates; and (4) startle test—a ball was suddenly thrown on the ground in front of the horse. HR data was collected every five s throughout each three min test. Eyelid movements and behaviours were retrospectively determined from video recordings. A generalized linear mixed model (GLIMMIX) procedure with Sidak's multiple comparisons of least squares means demonstrated that both full blinks (16 ± 12b vs. 15 ± 15b vs. 13 ± 11b vs. 26 ± 20a full blinks/3 min ± SEM; a,b differ p < 0.006) and half blinks (34 ± 15ab vs. 27 ± 14bc vs. 25 ± 13c vs. 42 ± 22a half blinks/3 min ± SEM; a,b,c differ p < 0.0001) decreased during feed restriction, separation and the startle test compared to the control, respectively. Eyelid twitches occurred more frequently in feed restriction (p < 0.0001) along with an increased HR (p < 0.0001). This study demonstrates that spontaneous blink rate decreases while eyelid twitches increase when the horse experiences a stressful situation.