Reaction Case Underlines Need for Horse Owner and Vet Communication

The ability to have a straightforward, informative conversation with your veterinarian about his or her prescribed treatments for your horse can be just as important as asking questions about treatments or diagnostics that your own physician recommends. With the ever-increasing (read: overwhelming) breadth of information out there about equine veterinary topics, it's not surprising that similar to the laundry list of side effects presented with a pharmaceutical commercial, your horse could have adverse reactions to medications on the market. A horse owner shared with The Horse her story of a treatment gone wrong, with the hope that it can be an impetus to other owners to ask their veterinarians the hard questions and research the substances being administered to their horses.

Fluphenazine, a human antipsychotic drug used to help calm anxiety in horses, carries a known risk of adverse reactions. Horse owner Lisa Belcher of Gresham, Ore., learned about those reactions firsthand after a veterinarian--with Belcher's consent--treated her Thoroughbred mare with the drug. Belcher says she now wishes she'd been warned of possible side effects of the drug.

Belcher says she spent months working to help the mare she purchased in California in late 2006 adjust to her new home in Oregon. The 24-year-old mare, Ginger, was the first horse Belcher had owned.

Ginger, mare who had reaction to fluphenazine


Last August, Ginger was anxious and appeared to be turning barn sour after having a change to her living arrangements. A veterinarian advised fluphenazine treatment and with Belcher's consent administered the long-acting drug, which sometimes is used to help calm horses being stalled for long periods.

However, Ginger's behavior did not improve over the following months, and her veterinarian administered a higher dosage of fluphenazine. In the days following that dosage, the mare began having problems regulating her body temperature, and she started behaving violently. At one point during treatment she put her head through the ceiling of an equine clinic. To help her regulate her temperature, Ginger was blanketed and she was fitted with a helmet to protect her head during fits. According to literature on the drug, Ginger was showing signs of the side effects known to be linked to the drug, which is used to treat schizophrenia in humans.

"I didn't know anything about it (the drug)," Belcher said. "They didn't tell me anything about it. As a first-time horse owner, I trusted the vet to tell me if there was going to be any implications, or could be."

After being told that there was the possibility Ginger could be permanently affected neurologically and could be a threat to the safety of other horses and people, Belcher and her husband decided to have the mare euthanized.

Belcher said she has no hard feelings against the veterinarians who treated Ginger. But after she did her own research on fluphenazine and its effects, she says she wishes the risks were made clear to her. "If I had known to ask, 'What are the reactions?' I would have never had them give her the shots. I would have given her something else or just dealt with it."

Belcher's experience highlights the importance of owners taking the initiative and being more active participants in the care of their horses.

"It's the same as in human medicine," said Stephen Schumacher, DVM, the chief administrator of the United States Equestrian Federation's Drugs and Medications program. "Any patient should be empowered to ask the questions. It's very common for people to be intimidated in the human world when they're being treated (and) not to ask the specific questions about their own medical conditions."

Schumacher said breakdowns in communication between owners and veterinarians can occur even with the most experienced owners and trainers, pointing to cases where a horse tests positive for a drug because a trainer or owner did not tell a veterinarian of an upcoming event.

"It needs to be better on the veterinarian's end as well as in eliciting questions and comments," he said.

Belcher said she knows she shares responsibility for what happened to her horse.

"It was just an unfortunate thing," Belcher said. "I fault myself a little bit, and them (the veterinarians) for not giving me (all the information on) the bad effects of this drug."

About the Author

Robert S. Johnson

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