“We've learned to live with it”—a qualitative study of Australian horse owners’ attitudes, perceptions and practices in response to Hendra virus

Anke K. Wiethoelter*, Kate Sawford, Nicole Schembri, Melanie R. Taylor, Navneet K. Dhand, Barbara Moloney, Therese Wright, Nina Kung, Hume E. Field, Jenny Ann L. M. L. Toribio

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    29 Citations (Scopus)


    Hendra virus causes sporadic zoonotic disease in Australia following spill over from flying foxes to horses and from horses to people. Prevention and risk mitigation strategies such as vaccination of horses or biosecurity and property management measures are widely publicised, but hinge on initiative and action taken by horse owners as they mediate management, care and treatment of their animals. Hence, underlying beliefs, values and attitudes of horse owners influence their uptake of recommended risk mitigation measures. We used a qualitative approach to investigate attitudes, perceptions and self-reported practices of horse owners in response to Hendra virus to gain a deeper understanding of their decision-making around prevention measures. Data presented here derive from a series of in-depth interviews with 27 horse owners from Hendra virus ‘hot spot’ areas in New South Wales and Queensland. Interviews explored previous experience, perceptions and resulting behaviour as well as communication around Hendra virus. All interviews were recorded, transcribed verbatim and analysed in NVivo using thematic analysis. Analysis revealed four major themes: perception of Hendra virus as a risk and factors influencing this perception, Hendra virus risk mitigation strategies implemented by horse owners, perceived motivators and barriers of these strategies, and interaction of perceived risk, motivators and barriers in the decision-making process. Although Hendra virus disease was perceived as a serious threat to the health of horses and humans, individual risk perception diverged among horse owners. Perceived severity, likelihood and unpredictability as well as awareness and knowledge of Hendra virus, trust in information obtained and information pathways, demographic characteristics and personal experience were the main factors influencing Hendra virus risk perceptions. Other key determinants of horse owners’ decision-making process were attitudes towards Hendra virus risk mitigation measures as well as perceived motivators and barriers thereof. Horse owners’ awareness of the necessity to consider individual Hendra virus risk and adequate risk management strategies was described as a learning process, which changed over time. However, different perceptions of risk, barriers and motivators in combination with a weighing up of advantages and disadvantages resulted in different behaviours. These findings demonstrate the multifactorial determinants of cognitive mediating processes and facilitate a better understanding of horse owners’ perspectives on preventive horse health measures. Furthermore, they provide valuable feedback to industry and government stakeholders on how to improve effective risk communication and encourage uptake of recommended risk mitigation measures.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)67-77
    Number of pages11
    JournalPreventive Veterinary Medicine
    Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2017


    • disease prevention
    • Hendra virus
    • horse owner
    • decision-making
    • behavioural change
    • qualitative study


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