Breaking Down Ethics and Equine Medicine

Sometimes situations in which a client’s wishes and a veterinarian’s ethics conflict arise.

Photo: Thinkstock

Whether a veterinarian is actively practicing or working in research, ethics play a central role in his or her decision-making. Every individual brings their own belief system about what is right and wrong to the table and, even with clear convictions, sometimes doing the right thing is not always the easiest path. California practitioner David Ramey, DVM, reflected on the nature of ethics in regard to equine practice at the 2013 American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) Convention, held Dec. 7-11 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Ramey said good ethical conduct is important for protecting the public’s best interest and for ensuring that people aren't taken advantage of. Additionally, professional organizations typically maintain an ethical standard to which members are expected to adhere, and these tenets protect ethical professionals from being undermined by those who don’t follow ethical credos.

“ 'He who walks in integrity walks securely,' ” said Ramey, “is a philosophy that dates back to biblical times.” A person’s ethical core defines his or her conduct, he continued. “If it was easy to be ethical, then there wouldn’t be any discussion.”

Despite many individuals sharing the same values, they often interpret those values differently. For example, veterinary practice is a business, and veterinarians need to make a living and support their families, while also putting financial resources back into their practices so they can offer more and improved services. Yet, he said the public's No. 1 concern regarding veterinarians is the cost of services. Striking a balance where the horse, the client, and the veterinary practice all benefit can be a difficult prospect. Additionally, both parties want what's best for animal, Ramey explained, but society's obligation tends to be toward equine welfare rather than veterinarians' needs.

“Society makes laws regarding veterinary medicine, but these laws change due to a shift in public interests,” he said. Consider the current concerns regarding horse racing, the use of carriage horses in urban environments, issues of humane transport of horses, bans on horse slaughter, soring practices in Tennessee Walking Horses, and revisions to the pregnant mare urine industry. Due to society’s current ethical stance, conditions historically considered acceptable and ethical might no longer be so. Ramey noted that ultimately, unethical practices lead to societal pressure from people unfamiliar with horses on legislators making important equine welfare decisions.

Situations can also arise on the practice level in which a client’s wishes and a veterinarian’s ethics conflict. One example is euthanasia due to convenience or solely economic reasons; another is a client’s request for a veterinarian to enhance a horse’s performance with methods that go against AAEP guidelines. “Such competing interests pull vets and clients in opposite directions,” said Ramey.

He noted that some people might feel that ethics is a curse because it constrains a veterinarian's ability to do what he or she wants to do. He said vets should hold themselves to high standards, noting that “while a veterinarian’s ethical responsibility to self and horse should supersede client demands, that doesn't also mean that anything goes." Even if a particular veterinarian is not constrained by ethics, he said, "the law and the legal system stand ready to provide a reminder."

Ramey closed, citing Mahatma Gandhi’s famed remark: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” And because veterinarians’ lives revolve around animal care, Ramey reminded us, “Those who act ethically are in the best position to argue for the welfare of animals.”

About the Author

Nancy S. Loving, DVM

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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