AWF: Is Killing Kinder?

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ALNORTHUMBRIA VETERINARY GROUP

LESLEY BARWISE-MUNRO MRCVS

The geriatric horse population is growing, with 30% of the UK horse population older than 15 years, equating to approximately 300,000 horses. More sophisticated veterinary care is available to meet and contribute to this trend. An additional trend is that horses are increasingly looked upon as a family pet and therefore more owners are prepared to keep them in retirement and old age. Insurance is contributing to the trend with some 58.5% of horses being insured.
Questions are asked: –

  • Are we overtreating geriatric horses?
  • For whose gain?
  • Is preventive treatment going to benefit the animal that could be considered too old in the first place? Examples of advanced dental treatment are shown to develop this point of view. Cushing’s disease is another example-now the 5th. most common equine disease and laminitis can be a complication.

Another major concern for older horses is the high prevalence of lameness. Figures are given: –

  • 6% lame at the walk
  • 5% lame at the trot
  • 80% hoof abnormalities
  • Is this acceptable?

In spite of the above comments more and more owners are using older horses for competing, such as show jumping, eventing, dressage, and driving. Many elite horses are older than 15. Only 21% have no exercise other than turn out. This raises another question: –

  • Are too many older athletic horses being kept going on intra-articular injections?
  • Does a balance exist?

The timing of euthanasia can be challenging and there is a need to assess ‘quality of life’ and some guidelines are evolving. There are important ‘quality of life markers’ for the owner such as interest/lack of interest in food, body condition, changes in behaviour and the ability to get back up from lying down.

Further concepts surrounding euthanasia are explored in this talk but clearly delaying euthanasia can compromise welfare. Advice can be given to owners to make a euthanasia plan in advance. Some interesting cases follow showing impressive success stories with horses that at first sight would have been expected to have a very poor prognosis. To balance this, large wounds caused by wire can be very difficult and a case is shown that was euthanised after 3 weeks of treatment. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, many insurance companies refuse to insure wire injuries.

In summary: –

  • Individual vets may find euthanasia difficult
  • With protracted cases take a step back /get another veterinary opinion
  • Set a time limit for improvement with the owner
  • Need to consider cases individually as there is a wide age span in geriatric horses
  • Vets are very influential when considering euthanasia but….
  • Overtreating is poor welfare.

A lively discussion followed. Some of the points raised were the cost of euthanasia, signing horses out of the food chain, and the importance of ensuring a good death as well as the decision itself. According to the speaker, about 70% of her clients rely on the veterinary surgeon to perform euthanasia.

Further discussion revolved around issues such as the effect of corporate ownership on clinical decisions, whether welfare should not be based on the premise of getting the horse back to work, and whether the financial cost of treating geriatric horses is morally right.

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