Why do some owners refuse to consult vets? - Veterinary Practice
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Why do some owners refuse to consult vets?

Veterinary Practice reports on this year’s National Equine Forum.

when their animal is ill, not the last
option when all others have been
exhausted, according to leading
equine veterinary surgeon Derek Knottenbelt.

Speaking at the
National Equine
Forum in London
last month, Prof.
expressed dismay at the way some
horse owners treat their animals. They
would rather seek help from their
family, friends, neighbours or “some
spotty teenager in Tescos” rather than from those who have undergone
professional training for the job, he

The former Liverpool veterinary
school clinician listed the excuses
used by owners to justify their refusal
to consult vets, and other properly
qualified groups such as VNs,
nutritionists and physiotherapists.
The professionals were regarded as expensive, or claimed to be less
knowledgeable about horses than
the owner’s friends – or they felt
the necessary medications could be
obtained elsewhere, he said.

It was particularly exasperating
when horse owners sought advice
from “assorted charlatans and con-
artists”, who are always ready to
exploit “vulnerable and disillusioned
owners”, he said.

Placebo ineffective in horses

Homoeopathy and other “voodoo”
techniques are ineffective because the
placebo effect doesn’t work in horses,
he told his audience, which consisted
of representatives of all branches of
the equine industry. Notable among
them was one member of a family
known to be prominent supporters
of the homoeopathic art, the Princess

Prof. Knottenbelt backed his
argument with
examples of cases
where the owners had delayed seeking
veterinary advice
with catastrophic
consequences for the
welfare of the animal

In one instance, a
horse suffering from
colic was “treated” by
different members of the owner’s family who walked it over
a period of hours.

When they finally decided to go
for professional help it was too late
and the animal died on its way to the
university hospital, he said.

He showed pictures from another
incident in which a horse with an eye infection was
given a series of
home remedies,
including an
antibiotic provided by a neighbouring farmer. It
was only when the horse was properly
examined that it was discovered to
have a thorn penetrating its eye.

“All I am asking of owners is that if
they are going to put some unsuitable
remedy in their horse’s eye, try it out
on their own eye first. They have a
choice, the horse doesn’t.”

But veterinarians may not be the
best people to deal with one particular
type of welfare problem, according to
Ben Hart, donkey behaviour training
manager at the Donkey Sanctuary.
He argued that the reason why many
equids with behavioural problems
received inadequate care was that
“everybody is an expert” and probably
“the worst people that owners should
consult are vets”.

He believed that there is good
theoretical training for those wanting
to deal with such issues at universities
around the country but there is
nowhere that students can then
go to gain the necessary practical

He believed that our understanding
of equine behaviour lagged behind
that which had now been applied in
dealing with equivalent issues in dogs.
Even experienced horse and donkey
keepers will always blame the animal
when it is aggressive or intractable: he
urged colleagues to institute a ban on
the use of detrimental terms such as
“naughty” or “stubborn” to describe
an animal’s actions – offenders should
be made to pay £5 each time to a suitable equine charity,
he suggested.

The audience also
heard a series of
short presentations
on different issues
from senior equine
veterinarians. Dr
Richard Newton, head
of epidemiology at
the Animal Health
Trust, Newmarket,
surveyed the emerging infectious disease threats to the UK
horse population.

Among those exotic pathogens
that UK horse owners may face in
future years was West Nile virus, an
agent that spread rapidly throughout
the continental United States from
1999 onwards. So far it has produced
mild to severe neurological signs in
more than 25,000 horses in the US
and caused more than 1,100 human

Here, the insect vector Culex
has now been found to be
abundant in the Thames estuary
area, which is also a favoured feeding
ground for the migratory bird species
that provide a suitable wildlife
reservoir, he said.

But at least there is an effective
vaccine for controlling this exotic
disease, which is not the case for many
old-established conditions which have
emerged again in recent years such as
dourine, glanders and swamp fever.
He warned representatives of horse
groups to be vigilant for possible signs
of these conditions, for which the
only effective control
measures are movement
restrictions and the
culling of chronically-
infected animals.

There are also
limitations on the role
of science in improving
the health and
performance of racing
thoroughbreds through
the emerging science
of equine genetics,
explained Prof. Peter Webbon, former
head of the AHT and veterinary
adviser to the International Studbook

He recognised that genomic
analyses may help in identifying genes
that are important determinants of
performance and disease resistance
but noted that the application
of this knowledge may not be

“We have been trying to produce
superhorses by conventional selective
breeding for many years but have
found that such animals rarely pass on
these characteristics to their offspring”.

Genetic alteration
a non-starter

Moreover, the use
of any techniques that permanently
alter the inheritable
genetic material in a
racing thoroughbred
is a complete non-
starter, he warned.
Even though such methods are a long way from practical
application, the international racing
authorities have made a pre-emptive
strike by declaring that any foal
produced using such technologies
would forfeit its status as a
thoroughbred, he said.

There were also concerns about
the capacity of equine scientists to
deal with more fundamental concerns
of horse owners. Prof. Celia Marr,
editor of the Equine Veterinary Journal,
presented the results of a study showing a worrying
decrease in the volume
of equine research
conducted in the UK.
Between 2010 and
2015 there was a 40%
drop in the number
of submissions to
her journal from UK-
based researchers.
Over the same period
there was a general
increase or stable pattern to the numbers of papers sent
from the US and other major centres
for equine research.

Support for research of value to the
thoroughbred racing community was
reasonably good with the Horserace
Betting Levy Board and Thoroughbred
Breeders Association contributing
nearly £18 million in research funding
between 2005 and 2014.

Although that source of funding was
now declining, horseracing was still a
generous provider of research funds
compared with other equine bodies.

There is virtually no research in the
UK into the specific concerns of other
equine sports such as
dressage, eventing and

She urged the
authorities responsible
for those sports to
consider imposing
a small levy on
competition entries to
provide funding for
studies on health and

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