Founder Care and Ethical Considerations

Ethics is defined as the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. While you probably wouldn't think of treating a foundered horse as a situation in which tough ethical decisions could crop up, the Second International Equine Conference on Laminitis and Diseases of the Foot held Nov. 10-11 featured a morning on just that topic.

Starting with a presentation by Lori S. Mann, VMD, of Landenberg, Penn., some of the possible dilemmas in treating severely damaged horses began to come to light.

"Animals are a form of personal property (1)," she began. "They have no legal rights except through the owner (2), and the law only requires that "animal property not be 'wasted' or that animals not be killed or made to suffer when there is no legitimate economic purpose." (9)

But what of the suffering of a horse which is being treated for laminitis or any other painful condition? At what point does one draw the line? she asked. There is no hard and fast answer as ethics vary from person to person, so she asked attendees to consider where each one of them would draw the line on what was ethical in founder treatment. She discussed three case studies to illustrate some of the common ethical issues veterinarians face.

Case 1: A 4-year-old trotter of the year with Potomac horse fever who founders in all four feet within 12 hours of admission to the hospital. He is acutely lame, non-weight-bearing within 24 hours, and radiographs show sinking in all four feet. This horse was owned by a syndicate in which some owners had insured their shares and voted for euthanasia. Others had not insured their shares and wanted to treat the horse. Since they couldn't agree to euthanize the horse, he was treated with surgical removal of all four hoof walls and kept in a sling for recovery. What would you have done?

Case 2: A 20-year-old Thoroughbred cross mare with a "pasture potato" lifestyle. She has chronic intermittent laminitis and a pituitary adenoma (benign, slow-growing tumor on the pituitary gland), and she became severely laminitic in all four feet after an otherwise uneventful recovery from surgical correction of a strangulating lipoma (fatty tumor of the intestine). All veterinarians working on the mare recommended euthanasia, but the owner wanted the mare to continue to be treated. What would you do?

Case 3: A ten-pound, 9-year-old Jack Russell terrier is severely injured in a fight with a 110-pound, 5-year-old Rottweiler mix, and was partially eviscerated for up to two hours before his condition was discovered. What would you do?

Mann asked the audience to consider several concepts with respect to these cases: First, the definition of inhumane (without pity for misery or suffering; cruel or barbarous [Oxford English Dictionary]); second, the concept that science fails us where emotions rule supreme; and third, the issue of quality of life. "How do you determine quality of life for a human being, let alone for a non-human animal that cannot speak and make known its wishes?" she asked.

"Laws are universal, black and white, easily understood," she said. "But can we ever know what exists in the soul of an animal or man? Where do you draw the line for your clients and where do you draw the line for yourself? For clients, it is their line to draw, their call to make."

What about the outcomes of the cases? Each could have turned out quite differently, Mann noted, so who's to say that the decisions made were the best ones?

Case 1: This colt "took to the (rehabilitation) pool like a fish to water," Mann reported. "Within six weeks, he had new hoof growing. At 5 1/2 months, he had grown four new feet, and he left the hospital after seven months. He went on to be a high-priced breeding stallion."

Case 2: "This mare is still at her owner's farm, on pergolide, isoxsuprine, and phenylbutazone twice a day. She has draining tracts in both front feet. The owner says the horse moves around, eats twice a day, and is happy. The treating veterinarian and farrier still recommend euthanasia."

Case 3: "This was my dog," Mann stated. "He was suffering because I had an emotional attachment to him. Had it been a client's dog, I would have recommended euthanasia. Instead, I took him to the emergency hospital where he went through 3.5 hours of surgery and had multiple transfusions. Then he arrested and I made the decision to let him to go. I had to ask myself some hard questions about quality of life.

"There are medical, ethical, financial, and emotional considerations in treating an animal," she concluded. "In the end, there is an animal counting on you to know best."

1 See generally, Gary L. Francione, Animals, Property, and The Law (Temple Univ. Press, 1995); Pamela D. Frasch et al., Animal Law (Carolina Academic Press 2000).
2 David S. Favre & Murray Loring, Animal Law 48 (Quorum Books, 1983).
9 Francione, supra note 1, at 35.

About the Author

Christy M. West

Christy West has a BS in Equine Science from the University of Kentucky, and an MS in Agricultural Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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