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Why do some owners refuse to consult vets?

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01 April 2016, at 1:00am

Veterinary Practice reports on this year’s National Equine Forum.

VETERINARY PRACTICES SHOULD BE THE FIRST SOURCE OF ADVICE THAT HORSE OWNERS CALL ON when their animal is ill, not the last option when all others have been exhausted, according to leading equine veterinary surgeon Derek Knottenbelt. 

Speaking at the National Equine Forum in London last month, Prof. Knottenbelt expressed dismay at the way some horse owners treat their animals. They would rather seek help from their family, friends, neighbours or “some spotty teenager in Tescos” rather than from those who have undergone professional training for the job, he said.

The former Liverpool veterinary school clinician listed the excuses used by owners to justify their refusal to consult vets, and other properly qualified groups such as VNs, nutritionists and physiotherapists. The professionals were regarded as expensive, or claimed to be less knowledgeable about horses than the owner’s friends – or they felt the necessary medications could be obtained elsewhere, he said.

It was particularly exasperating when horse owners sought advice from “assorted charlatans and con- artists”, who are always ready to exploit “vulnerable and disillusioned owners”, he said.

Placebo ineffective in horses

Homoeopathy and other “voodoo” techniques are ineffective because the placebo effect doesn’t work in horses, he told his audience, which consisted of representatives of all branches of the equine industry. Notable among them was one member of a family known to be prominent supporters of the homoeopathic art, the Princess Royal.

Prof. Knottenbelt backed his argument with examples of cases where the owners had delayed seeking veterinary advice with catastrophic consequences for the welfare of the animal concerned.

In one instance, a horse suffering from colic was “treated” by different members of the owner’s family who walked it over a period of hours.

When they finally decided to go for professional help it was too late and the animal died on its way to the university hospital, he said.

He showed pictures from another incident in which a horse with an eye infection was given a series of home remedies, including an intrammamary antibiotic provided by a neighbouring farmer. It was only when the horse was properly examined that it was discovered to have a thorn penetrating its eye.

“All I am asking of owners is that if they are going to put some unsuitable remedy in their horse’s eye, try it out on their own eye first. They have a choice, the horse doesn’t.”

But veterinarians may not be the best people to deal with one particular type of welfare problem, according to Ben Hart, donkey behaviour training manager at the Donkey Sanctuary. He argued that the reason why many equids with behavioural problems received inadequate care was that “everybody is an expert” and probably “the worst people that owners should consult are vets”.

He believed that there is good theoretical training for those wanting to deal with such issues at universities around the country but there is nowhere that students can then go to gain the necessary practical experience.

He believed that our understanding of equine behaviour lagged behind that which had now been applied in dealing with equivalent issues in dogs. Even experienced horse and donkey keepers will always blame the animal when it is aggressive or intractable: he urged colleagues to institute a ban on the use of detrimental terms such as “naughty” or “stubborn” to describe an animal’s actions – offenders should be made to pay £5 each time to a suitable equine charity, he suggested.

The audience also heard a series of short presentations on different issues from senior equine veterinarians. Dr Richard Newton, head of epidemiology at the Animal Health Trust, Newmarket, surveyed the emerging infectious disease threats to the UK horse population. 

Among those exotic pathogens that UK horse owners may face in future years was West Nile virus, an agent that spread rapidly throughout the continental United States from 1999 onwards. So far it has produced mild to severe neurological signs in more than 25,000 horses in the US and caused more than 1,100 human deaths.

Here, the insect vector Culex modestus has now been found to be abundant in the Thames estuary area, which is also a favoured feeding ground for the migratory bird species that provide a suitable wildlife reservoir, he said.

But at least there is an effective vaccine for controlling this exotic disease, which is not the case for many old-established conditions which have emerged again in recent years such as dourine, glanders and swamp fever. He warned representatives of horse groups to be vigilant for possible signs of these conditions, for which the only effective control measures are movement restrictions and the culling of chronically- infected animals. 

There are also limitations on the role of science in improving the health and performance of racing thoroughbreds through the emerging science of equine genetics, explained Prof. Peter Webbon, former head of the AHT and veterinary adviser to the International Studbook Committee.

He recognised that genomic analyses may help in identifying genes that are important determinants of performance and disease resistance but noted that the application of this knowledge may not be straightforward.

“We have been trying to produce superhorses by conventional selective breeding for many years but have found that such animals rarely pass on these characteristics to their offspring". 

Genetic alteration a non-starter 

Moreover, the use of any techniques that permanently alter the inheritable genetic material in a racing thoroughbred is a complete non- starter, he warned. Even though such methods are a long way from practical application, the international racing authorities have made a pre-emptive strike by declaring that any foal produced using such technologies would forfeit its status as a thoroughbred, he said.

There were also concerns about the capacity of equine scientists to deal with more fundamental concerns of horse owners. Prof. Celia Marr, editor of the Equine Veterinary Journal, presented the results of a study showing a worrying decrease in the volume of equine research conducted in the UK. Between 2010 and 2015 there was a 40% drop in the number of submissions to her journal from UK- based researchers. Over the same period there was a general increase or stable pattern to the numbers of papers sent from the US and other major centres for equine research.

Support for research of value to the thoroughbred racing community was reasonably good with the Horserace Betting Levy Board and Thoroughbred Breeders Association contributing nearly £18 million in research funding between 2005 and 2014.

Although that source of funding was now declining, horseracing was still a generous provider of research funds compared with other equine bodies.

There is virtually no research in the UK into the specific concerns of other equine sports such as dressage, eventing and polo.

She urged the authorities responsible for those sports to consider imposing a small levy on competition entries to provide funding for studies on health and performance.