Vetting via the Internet
by Tom Moates
The internet can be a valuable tool in gaining information – but how much of this should be taken into account when faced with a sick or injured horse?
"My horse has been down in the pasture for two days, what should I do?"
Although a horrifying entry to read, incredibly this is one of the many posts which can be seen on various internet forums.
Most people with horses in their care would know that a horse 'down' is a medical emergency requiring the vet right away to assess the situation - or would they?.
My horse has itchy sores...what should I do?” is another one. “My horse has a cough....” Though a little less frightening, these have the same answer - call the veterinarian! This begs the question, are people substituting the internet chats and forums for a call to their veterinarian? It seems in some instances, clearly so.
Making an error in judgment that delays treatment for a horse in need of medical attention is a terrible lesson to learn. Delaying helpful care even for less threatening disorders only prolongs a horse’s ill health, and could possibly come under current welfare or duty of care laws which are covered by legislation in most Australian states. There are, however, clear steps for horse caretakers to avoid this kind of mistake.
The problem is essentially two fold, first is that by delaying a call to the veterinarian the horse doesn’t get medical care as soon as possible, and second, missing the signs, or mis-reading the signs that something serious is going on with a horse by trying the internet approach means the horse might not receive an effective treatment, or may possibly be treated incorrectly, aggravating the problem.
Simply stated - anyone with horses in their care should establish a relationship with a local large animal veterinarian - a necessity that comes with the territory and responsibility to the horse. Cost is certainly a universal concern for horse owners, and veterinary fees vary around the country. The truth very often, however, is that having an equine veterinarian come out to the property may be cheaper than taking a dog or cat in to be seen by a small animal veterinarian in some cases. Generally there is no ambiguity to the pricing, a simple call to the veterinary office will yield current rates for various procedures. Mileage usually factors in, but once basic property call-out costs are established, all other regular services should be straightforward and readily provided over the phone; such as ultrasound, vaccines, pregnancy testing, stomach drenching, and so on. Obviously emergency calls run higher, (especially as these always seem to be on a Sunday or after hours!) and some practices charge for phone consultations whereas others don’t. Don’t be afraid to ask so as to be prepared for any outcome.
A property call is a small price to pay to get acquainted with a veterinarian, allow the veterinarian to meet the horse (or herd), and have the horse’s health information logged into the practitioner’s system. Once established, emergency calls, acquiring medications, and speaking to the veterinarian on the phone for consultations is typically an expected part of the services and is greatly streamlined. Also, veterinarians may have a more direct line of access to specialists at large clinics and university hospitals, so if the horse has a serious problem requiring special services, that process may likewise be hastened.
Establishing a rapport with a veterinarian, who services the local area and is familiar with the horse’s background, can be beneficial to the horse in the case of general treatment or an emergency.
It is important to have arrangements with a veterinary practice - even if just a simple phone call to advise of animal details to be logged onto their system - and not to wait for an emergency before calling veterinarians out of the phone book, as this wastes precious time, possibly disadvantages the horse as the veterinarian has no prior experience or history of this horse to aid in diagnosis and care, and may not be prepared to take on an emergency case.
More information is available to the horse owner than ever before, much of it for free, and as quick as the click of a mouse - thanks to the internet. It is fine to go online when curious about a particular problem with a horse - many reputable veterinarians, journalists and researchers contribute articles to magazines and online sources and solid education helps everyone become better informed horse owners and to provide better care. However, the internet is not a substitute for medical care, as there is a considerable difference in the quality of information available for a range of topics, making it difficult to sort out the ‘chaff from the oats’.
A chat room, forum, article, or list server is not a veterinarian, and there are all kinds of supplements and health care products available with glowing testimonials promoting them, but none of that will help a horse needing immediate colic surgery. And, although it is the horse owner/carer’s responsibility to discern what is, and what is not, a medical condition needing veterinary attention, there is no substitute for taking a complete history of the horse accompanied by a hands-on clinical examination by a veterinarian to determine what is going on.
As a golden rule, if in doubt, call the vet and let them decide if the horse needs professional medical care or not. That’s part of their job! In most cases, if calling with a problem, the veterinarian will assess the situation and decide if a property call is necessary - or, in extreme cases, if the horse must immediately be floated to a clinic or veterinary hospital. Good veterinarians are in demand and they will not waste the time to come out if they know (from what is described) it is unnecessary. They also know better than anyone that a horse’s health (and their reputations as veterinarians) are on the line with every call and every case, and will attend the horse as soon as possible if they think it is needed.
It is important to remember that there is no policing of information and advice on the web and anyone can publish an article on any subject, regardless of their lack of knowledge or qualifications to do so. And, large animal veterinarians don’t spend years studying and decades of their lives getting kicked and covered in manure for nothing! In other words, if the horse has some troubling symptoms, don’t mess around - use the veterinarian that is known by the owner and who also knows the horse. To responsible horse owners this may seem obvious, but the painful truth is that there are horse owners out there getting online to equine websites with messages like those at the beginning of this article.
Which leads to the other part of this equation - knowing the horse. A person who is around their horse/s frequently, and spends time with them, should have a feel for their overall condition. When ‘in tune’ with a horse it will be immediately clear if something is amiss. Of course many serious things are obvious, like a big bloody gash, a limp, swelling, or a horse down that can’t get up, but there are many more subtle cues to a problem that will become clear to the person who pays attention, like a change in feed intake, manure or urine output, attitude, routine...any number of things like this can be symptoms of a bigger problem. A book, article, or the internet may provide some insight into such uncertainties, but there is no substitute for running it all past a professional who has hands-on knowledge of the horse and its history.
There will always be the occasional situation where a horse may fail to respond to treatment, and if there are questions on the diagnosis then it could be prudent for the horse owner to indicate to the initial veterinarian that they would like to ask a second veterinarian for an opinion. Discussing with the veterinarian any information from internet sources or knowledgeable friends that the horse owner may feel relevant, may even reveal symptoms/changes they have failed to mention earlier, which could influence the diagnosis/ treatment.
While keeping informed about various ailments, problems or illnesses through books, magazines and the internet is a good idea for the horse owner, it is essential to establish a trusting relationship with a veterinarian with whom they can communicate and feel comfortable about leaving the horse in their care. When it’s all said and done, horse owners want what’s best for their horses, whether it be gear, feed or health!