Recognizing and Responding to Neglect

Equine veterinarians are in a unique position to recognize neglect or the potential for neglect in horses. They have direct access to horses and horse property, and they get to know horses and their owners by providing care for many years. As regular outsiders, equine veterinarians might pick up on trends of which the horse's owner could be unaware.

For example, suppose Horse A has always been in good flesh every spring for his vaccinations. This year, however, he has lost a significant amount of weight. Yet his owner doesn't bring up the subject during the veterinarian's visit. What should the veterinarian do?

First, the veterinarian must decide whether or not to get involved. There are several reasons why some veterinarians look the other way, such as the fear of losing clients, the fear of repercussions, or the belief that what owners choose to do with their own horses is their own business.

However, veterinarians who decide to do nothing about equine neglect must do exactly that--nothing. Since nearly every serious investigation requires veterinary assistance at some point, the veterinarian who agrees to officially examine a neglected horse has the power of life and death over that animal. The worst thing that can happen to a starving horse is for an unwilling veterinarian to respond to a request to examine the horse, then state that the horse is not in danger and is being taken care of appropriately. Case closed.

Returning to our example in which Horse A appears to be significantly thinner this spring, assume the veterinarian chooses to attempt to educate the owner. How could he address the issue with the owner in a non-threatening manner so the owner will be more likely to follow the veterinarian's recommendations?

Depending on the veterinarian's interpersonal communication style, honesty (softened with a sincere compliment as well as compassion) is usually the best policy. An appropriate opening statement may be, "Mrs. B., I noticed a change in your horse this year. Usually he's bright, shiny, and carries just the right amount of weight. But this year he doesn't seem to have come out of winter quite as nicely. What do you think?"

Mrs. B. might be relieved that her horse's weight loss has been noticed, in which case she and the veterinarian can work together to diagnose the cause and implement solutions. By sitting down and talking about the problem, they might pinpoint a missed dental examination, a poor parasite control program, a decrease in the quality of feedstuffs, or some other problem. The veterinarian should follow up with this owner and her horse to make sure the solution is effective. If the horse is a "hard keeper," it might take several attempts and many months to find the best nutritional and management program for him.

When approached by the veterinarian in the above manner, Mrs. B. might instead become offended that her horsekeeping skills have been criticized. Then the veterinarian must decide how far he is willing to go to persuade his client that, while her horse might not be in danger now, his health has deteriorated and will continue to deteriorate if nothing is done.

Now assume that Mrs. B. became defensive, even belligerent, as the veterinarian attempts to help her understand that the horse could have a problem. It is clear that this owner is not going to be receptive to assistance from her veterinarian. If the veterinarian wants to make sure this horse does not become truly neglected, he might choose to contact the local authorities and have them conduct an official investigation.

Of course, depending on the circumstances, a veterinarian might choose to contact the authorities right away and not even attempt to educate the client. This is certainly an acceptable decision and is better than ignoring the situation. Ideally, equine veterinarians will have working relationships with local law enforcement, animal control, humane societies, and their state departments of agriculture before being faced with a situation of equine neglect.

About the Author

Lydia Gray, DVM, MA

Lydia Gray, DVM, is Medical Director and Staff Veterinarian for SmartPak Equine. She was previously the executive director of the Hooved Animal Humane Society in Woodstock, IL, and an Owner Education Director for the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

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