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Are vets failing our horses

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01 July 2017, at 1:00am

Veterinary Practice reports from the latest Animal Welfare Discussion Forum

THE ANIMAL WELFARE FOUNDATION DISCUSSION FORUM met on 5th June to ask some of the difficult welfare questions facing the veterinary profession. One of the key topics up for discussion was equine welfare, with speakers discussing the overarching question: “Are vets failing our horses?”

Where might vets be failing?

Roly Owers, chief executive of World Horse Welfare, kicked off discussions by asking what areas we might be failing in. The public view of welfare has changed significantly over the past few decades – what was common practice 20 years ago may now be
deemed widely unacceptable. Welfare is no longer just ensuring the five freedoms, but is now much more about the concept of a life worth living – looking for positive outcomes too. If an animal is shut in a stable 24/7, it may be receiving much of what is required for living. But, Roly asks, “Is it a life worth living?” Listing weight management, disease prevention, lameness, breeding, insurance, end-of-life care and sporting performance as some of the biggest
areas of importance in equine welfare, Roly dotted around statistics like “between 30 and 50% of the UK equine population is obese or grossly overweight”, “the national equine herd [has] a vaccine rate for influenza of 30%”, and “46% of sport horses in normal work are lame or have a stiff, stilted canter”. He asked if vets always prioritise the welfare of horses over all other considerations, stating that while the responsibility ultimately lies with the owner, the equine vet has an important role to play in changing owner behaviour in the long-term.

End of life issues

Roly highlighted end-of-life issues as one of the biggest challenges to the veterinary profession and animal welfare, and this was the focus of the proceeding talk by Lesley Barwise- Munro, a former BEVA president. Geriatric medicine in the equine field is increasing with growth in the geriatric horse population. Around 30% of the UK horse population is aged 15 years or above, and this accounts for around 300,000 horses, Lesley tells us. The care available to geriatric horses is more sophisticated and training in geriatric medicine is more widely available. The question to be posed, then, is are we overtreating geriatric horses? Are the benefits of the treatment going to outweigh the stress associated with the procedure? Horses are no longer just work animals, they are pets and members of the family – if we are overtreating horses, is it for the benefit of the horse or the owner? Lesley stated that the vast majority of horses aged 15 or above have dental disease – the treatment of which can be very stressful for the animal. When
considering whether we’re increasing their longevity or compromising their welfare with treatment, Lesley notes the importance of remembering that the term “geriatric” encompasses
horses aged 15 to 40 – each case must be considered individually.
Euthanasia is another area of concern. It is important for vets and
owners to consider quality of life, not prolongation of life, but there is no accurate quantitative tool available to assess quality of a horse’s life, Lesley says. She recommends considering several
markers, such as: interest in food, changes in weight, normal behaviour when going into the field, changes in the amount of time spent lying down, and whether the horse gets down low and back up again. If a horse is struggling to get up from the ground, “there are usually worse times to come”, Lesley says. Lesley recommends talking about euthanasia with the horse owner ahead of the time and setting a timeline, perhaps deciding together that the horse should be left to enjoy the summer and be put down before the
more challenging winter conditions start to set in. Many vets find the topic of euthanasia difficult, so Lesley suggests that vets be aware of this – that they explore it with their colleagues and try to help where possible, perhaps by retraining them in the techniques
involved. It’s important for the vet and the owner to remember that delaying euthanasia can compromise the welfare of the animal.

Are we pushing horses too far in sport?

The final topic up for discussion in the equine session was welfare in equestrian sport. Equine surgeon Tim Greet asked, “Are we pushing horses too far, even beyond their physical limits?” The characteristics we harness in horses to improve performance in
different disciplines are often unnatural and so may impact the horse’s welfare. “It has to be admitted from the outset that the major difference between horse and human sport is that horses have little choice in the matter,” Tim said. Risks of competition are
well-recognised – from tendon and soft tissue injuries to repetitive strain injuries causing osteoarthritis. Tim emphasised the recent
modifications in equestrian sport, driven by both public outcry and risk assessment from the authorities. There is no doubt that equestrian welfare has been improved over the years in response to these demands (take, for example, modifications to fences on
racetracks and the improved design of the whip). There is also the risk that the horse owner, riders and trainers may not be able to identify lameness in a horse, or may decide to medicate the horse
rather than allowing it to rest. These issues can be resolved by improving the relationship between owner, rider, trainer and veterinary surgeon; keeping this relationship honest and transparent could ensure that the welfare of the  horse is at the heart of veterinary decisions, Tim says. Tim concluded the equine welfare talks by stating that veterinarians as a profession have a huge responsibility to bear in being “the interpreter of the well-being of horses”. The equestrian industry in the UK, he says, is the third largest rural activity (after farming and tourism). “If you believe that equine competition is acceptable, then you must accept that athletic injuries are inevitable,” Tim says. By working more closely with clients, veterinarians can ensure the well-being of these horses, which are used in competition for our pleasure.