Monday, July 23, 2012

Modern Veterinary Ethics... Good, or Bad?

Yes, the Save a Draft Blog is back on the air! I am Jenny Kurtz, and I am the Maryland Hay Bank Coordinator. The Maryland Hay Bank is a program within Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue that provides grants of hay to horse owners in Maryland experiencing temporary financial hardships due to job loss or medical issues. 

Today’s blog entry is not specific to Gentle Giants or saving draft horses or even hay.  It is related to horse care.  

With the stories in the news the past few weeks on the vet care provided to Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another I began to wonder if vets take the Hippocratic Oath. After doing some research with google the short answer is No. I was wondering because after reading the NY Times article on 7/12/12 discussing the treatments provided to I’ll Have Another I began to wonder if the injections of joint fluid and powerful pain killers were in the horse’s best interest or in the owner’s and trainer’s best financial interests.  The NY Times article provides some damning information (twenty-four horses die every week on US racetracks and that the US racing industry is the leader in catastrophic horse breakdowns) and concluded that the overuse and misuse of powerful pain killers allows owners and trainers to race unsound horses.

An article on on 7/12/12 expressed an opposite view that all of the care provided to I’ll Have Another was routine and not out of the norm for the racing industry. Maybe that is the problem given the number of thoroughbreds dying on US racetracks.

So with these conflicting views I began to wonder if vets take the Hippocratic Oath of “first do no harm” or something similar. My google search revealed multiple sources that discuss how human doctors take an oath to cure illness first and relieve suffering second while animal doctors’ primary (and sometimes only) obligation is to relieve suffering.  But historically vets relieved suffering not for the animal’s sake but so that the owner could maximize financial gain off the animal’s labor and/or body parts.

Within the past 50 years many veterinarians have shifted their focus to include preventing and curing illnesses but also relieving suffering for the animal’s sake. Since 1969 the American Veterinary Medical Association has adopted the following oath:
                Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine,
I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health, the relief of animal suffering, the conservation of livestock resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.
I will practice my profession conscientiously, with dignity, and in keeping with the principles of veterinary medical ethics.
I accept as a lifelong obligation the continual improvement of my professional knowledge and competence."
So, were the vets treating I’ll Have Another’s injuries doing so to protect the horse’s health and well being and to relieve his suffering? Or were the vets devising treatments more to protect I’ll Have Another’s owner’s financial well being? Can we even separate the animal’s well being from the owner’s?

My view is it’s complicated. Yes, within the US horse racing industry as whole there are veterinarians who view the owner’s financial well being as paramount and the horse’s well being as secondary and they provide treatment accordingly.  With the number of racetrack deaths there can be no other conclusion that injured horses are being treated just so they can race when they are not fit to do so. Veterinarians are enabling owners and trainers to race unfit horses.

But when looking at the I’ll Have Another situation specifically it can be harder to decide. The horse was scratched from the Belmont when they could have pumped him full of pain killers just get him through for one more race (and it was a big race). Still I am bothered by a 3 year old with osteoarthritis. That does not seem right to me even though the (a magazine dedicated to equine health issues) states the treatment was normal and routine for a racehorse. Like I said, this is complicated when you only look at one horse.

What do you think? Should the US horse racing industry be better regulated to prevent owners from racing unfit horses? Should vets who support owners in racing unfit horses be sanctioned? Should the veterinarian oath be rewritten and/or more strictly enforced?   Can we even enforce an oath to protect the animal’s well being as the first priority when the animal is classified as property?

While this blog was about horse racing and equine vets the same questions can be asked about small animal vets. When a vet docks ears or a tail to achieve the breed standard or declaws a cat is that for animal’s well being or for the owner’s well being?


  1. Great post Jenny. One part that really struck a chord with me was your question "Can we even separate the animal’s well being from the owner’s?"

    Since the animals in our care have no choice of the quality of care they receive or the tasks they are asked to perform, maybe part of an updated veterinary Hippocratic oath would be a commitment to educate owners. As we've seen time and time again (especially with rescue horses), the problem is generally not with the horse but with its past owners, with issues ranging from letting their horses become the alpha in the relationship to actual abuse.

    Then of course the issue is how to define "abuse." Maybe it's time for veterinarians to come up with scientifically-backed guidelines on things like stacked shoes for TWHs, docking tails on drafts, and cranking in the noses of dressage horses. Since so many people unfortunately let show ring fads dictate how we treat our animals, vets should be the voice of reason speaking out to their clients about humane treatment.

    PS: After the quote from the AVMA, the blog post text is black and is very hard to read on the dark green background. Would you mind changing all the text to white?