Deliberate Abuse?

I hope you remember me from psychology graduate school back in the early '80s. Time flies. Anyway, I still have horses and enjoy your contributions on behavior to The Horse magazine and web site. Sometimes I wish I had gone into horse or dog behavior, but I am enjoying work as a clinical psychologist and enjoying horses for a diversion. I've been starting a new driving prospect, which has been fun. We're both taking lessons. He's doing better than I am.

Anyway, I hope you don't mind me writing in with a somewhat professional question. The topic is more in the area of human behavior or horse welfare than a horse behavior question, but I imagine you have encountered the issue and I wondered whether horse behavior and welfare specialists might have addressed it.

Do you know if there has there been any formal discussion of horses or other pets being the target of their owners or caretakers suffering Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy (MSP or MSBP)? Charlotte

Thanks for your great question. I think it's certainly appropriate for The Horse. The magazine is read by both veterinarians and horse owners, and my intuition is that both groups would be interested in the topic. I found one Scottish report of a survey of small animal veterinarians describing nine cases in household pets [Munro HM, Thrusfield MV. Battered Pets: Munchausen syndrome by proxy (fictitious illness by proxy). Journal of Small Animal Practice 42: 385-389, 2001.] When it comes to horses, I don't know of any reports or formal discussion of MSP, but assume it can happen. I have had a couple of occasions to discuss certain aspects of MSP informally with colleagues working together on horse cases, where certain elements of our interactions with the owner reminded us of MSP. So I'll be happy to comment, acknowledging limited credentials in human psychology.

First, I'll describe MSP for readers who might not be familiar with the acronym or this human psychological syndrome. Briefly, the original Munchausen's Syndrome is a well-recognized psychiatric disorder in which people deliberately injure themselves or make themselves sick, then seek treatment, presumably for benefit of relief from work, for the attention, and for the care (all known as the secondary gains of illness).

Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy is a form of the disorder defined within the realm of child abuse, in which the afflicted individual (usually a parent or guardian) injures, poisons, or starves another person (the proxy, usually a child or other dependent) rather than themselves, then seeks medical attention or diagnostics. The victim is usually a child who might incur serious illness or even death at the hands of a parent, typically the mother. The victim improves whenever hospitalized and guarded from the parent, and gets sick again when in the care of the parent. It's somewhat up for debate as to why a person would do this to someone they love and care for. Some ideas are that the parent gains attention, control, satisfaction of caretaking, and sympathy. It can appear to be an odd and pathetic mode of entertainment.

It has been noted that MSP-afflicted people often have medical knowledge or training, which is used to present complex
complaints or complicated disease scenarios to challenge the medical professionals or confound the diagnoses. An afflicted
parent might sabotage treatment to prolong or worsen the child's condition. If medically trained, they often insist on doing the nursing care and treatments themselves.

There is a good explanation of the syndrome and how it was named online at

In my experience, I would have to say that true MSP toward a horse--deliberately injuring, poisoning, provoking a behavior problem in a horse, then seeking veterinary or professional behavior care--has never come to mind. But having said that, there are situations in which some horses seem to have all sorts of injuries, as well as physical and behavioral afflictions. You have to wonder why some horse managers or owners have so many more problems with their animals than usual.

For example, you run into people from time to time who seem to create, or at least don't eliminate, obvious hazardous conditions in which their horses get injured. You know the places where hardly a week goes by without an emergency call for a laceration, puncture, kick, or bite wound of some sort. In some cases, the circumstances make you wonder whether these people get some sort of pleasure supporting veterinarians and nursing injured or sick horses. Is it simple lack of knowledge and common sense about animals? It's difficult for me to judge, but often in interacting with "horse people" professionally at work or especially casually at social gatherings, I get the impression that some individuals seem to derive particular satisfaction from discussing their pet's injuries, illnesses, and veterinary experiences, and often they seem to have a lot more problems than usual, almost consuming their lives.

I certainly don't mean to generalize, because these are by far in the minority of such acquaintances, but one group that stands out in my memory in this regard are those who say they have rescued abused animals. It seems they love to talk about all the injuries, diseases, behavior problems, medications, treatments, specialist visits, etc., for these poor critters. Maybe it's just that people think behavior specialists like to hear about this. In fact, a lot of the injuries are often attributed to behavior problems. It's at times like this that MSP (in a mild form) comes to mind.

For example, I recently talked to some folks who described their place as a small, but growing, informal horse rescue farm. They had accumulated a half-dozen or so horses over the last year or two since they bought a small property. It seemed from their stories that they have non-stop illness, injury, foot care, and behavior problems requiring frequent veterinary and specialist visits. Some of the problems sounded pretty serious. These folks seemed fairly pleased and animated to talk about what I would be embarrassed to admit. Maybe they were just making conversation.

Probably not as often as some veterinarians might complain about, there are some people who appear to be hypochondriacs of sorts about their animals. Concerns sometimes seem imagined. An owner might read or hear about a condition, then see some of the signs and worry about the horse. Sometimes the owner truly seems concerned, and other times it seems that they enjoy wondering and asking about everything. I hesitate to admit that I think about this possibility in some cases, because we also have the big problem in veterinary medicine--as in human medicine--of the very observant horse person who correctly observes changes in a horse earlier than the professional might notice or be able to pick up on in diagnostic tests.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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