Veterinary Ethics

Owners, trainers, and veterinarians are responsible for the health and welfare of the horse. Performance horses need to be treated like any other athletes. This often entails medical treatment by veterinarians, which allows horses to compete in a comfortable manner. Competition in such disciplines as show hunters and jumpers requires the horse to have a certain body condition and be able to move, jump, and/or behave in a specified manner. Horses performing in all disciplines need to be sound, which becomes a challenge because of the intense training necessary for competition and the rigorous and repetitive nature of horse shows.

Sports medicine-focused practitioners have become a very proactive group in the veterinary profession, which has made great strides in addressing disease processes and injuries that prevent the equine athlete from performing at an optimal level.

For any veterinary care to be effective, an interactive veterinary-client-patient relationship (VCPR) is of paramount importance. This means the client has agreed to have a veterinary examination performed, seek a diagnosis, and follow a prescribed treatment plan to resolve the problem. Without a VCPR, the dispensing or merchandising of veterinary prescription drugs by veterinarians or others is unethical and is illegal under state and federal law.

A large amount of the veterinary prescription drugs being administered to performance horses is done so without a true VCPR. The drugs are often acquired from or through equine veterinarians, yet they are later given without the approval of the dispensing veterinarian. Horse shows have become very competitive, not only because of the quality of the horses being shown, but also because of the sheer number of horses competing. Many horses with significant soundness issues are kept competing with various medications. The strict judging standards that are applied to the show hunters compel them to be quiet and to move and/or jump in a certain manner. This contributes to the use of countless methods or medications to achieve these standards. The use of many veterinary prescription drugs is trainer-driven with the hope of gaining a competitive "edge." Often because a medication appeared effective for one horse, it is hoped that it will be similarly beneficial to another.

An example of this is the widespread inappropriate use of the drug used to treat equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM), Marquis (ponazuril). Equine protozoal myeloencephalitis is a neurologic disease that requires a complete neurologic examination accompanied by specific diagnostic testing to produce a definitive diagnosis. Ponazuril is an anticoccidial (designed to eliminate coccidial parasites) medication that prevents multiplication of the parasite causing EPM. The drug exerts no initial effect on the horse itself, but it might prove toxic if administered over an extended period of time. Yet, Marquis (ponazuril) is readily available to trainers without a veterinary examination or a definitive diagnosis.

Owners and trainers can often obtain veterinary medications or prescriptions from their attending veterinarians, although a VCPR might not exist for a horse the owner or trainer intends to treat. Drugs can be acquired from drug supply firms that have been provided with an "open-ended" or multiple-refill prescription by a trainer. They can also be acquired from individuals (nonveterinarians working for companies or veterinary clinics) who visit large horse shows and fill clients' prescription needs without documenting the VCPR. Also, numerous Web sites are available that will fill any prescription they receive.

Veterinarians who participate in writing prescriptions or authorizing medication for animals with which they do not have a legitimate VCPR are practicing in an unethical manner and do not represent the standards of equine veterinary practice. The inappropriate use of veterinary prescription drugs can only detract from the overall health and welfare of the horse.

--By Stephen O'Grady, DVM; Stephen Soule, VMD; and Christopher Miller, DVM

This is a position paper from the United States Equestrian Federation, the national governing body for equestrian sport. Drs. O'Grady, Soule, and Miller are members of The United States Equestrian Federation's Veterinary Committee.

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