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Is Your Veterinarian a Good Horse Doc?

Written by: Beth A. Valentine, DVM, PhD

As a horse owner you know (or should know) that you need a good equine veterinarian. Looking in the yellow pages of the phone book will give you a list of veterinarians in your area and the species they treat. Not all veterinarians treat horses. When you find one that does, how can you tell if the vet is good for you and your horses?

Tales abound of disgruntled animal owners, with the occasional horror story of veterinary care gone wrong. Please remember that veterinarians are human, and they are dealing with a species that not only can't tell us what is wrong, but also is also difficult and sometimes dangerous to examine. Many of the tools available to physicians and small animal veterinarians procedures such as radiography (X-ray) of the chest and abdomen, ultrasound of internal organs, MRI and CAT scans, and exploratory surgery are difficult, impossible, or dangerous to perform on horses. Many of the medications used to treat illness in horses do not have the benefit of the same lengthy (and expensive) testing of factors such as absorption, therapeutic blood levels, and efficacy as medications for use in people, dogs, and cats often have.

Veterinarians come with a wide range of backgrounds, knowledge, experience, and expertise. All practicing veterinarians must have graduated from a veterinary college. Most veterinary colleges do not allow for much in the way of species specialization during training (the veterinary college at Davis, California, is one exception that allows species tracking). Students wishing to specialize in equine medicine and/or surgery often continue their training following graduation by entering into internships or residencies.

In the United States, all practicing veterinarians in private practice must have passed a National Board examination, and most states also require separate examinations for state licensing. Veterinarians from foreign veterinary colleges must complete special programs and examinations before they can be licensed to practice veterinary medicine in the United States. A veterinarian working at a college or university, however, does not have to be licensed to practice in that state. Of course, the qualifications of veterinarians at learning institutions have been carefully screened before they are hired on as clinical faculty.

So, back to the question of how to know if you have a good equine veterinarian. First, inquire about education and training. Next, ask the horse owners in your area for their opinions. Good personality and so called bedside manner count, but should not be the only reasons to prefer one veterinarian over another. Some popular equine veterinarians may be popular more for their charm than for their expertise.

Many people feel a veterinarian who is also a horse person is best. In my experience, though, some veterinary students who are horse-oriented in their private lives may carry some of the pervasive myths and legends of horse medicine and horse care into their veterinary practices. Some of the best equine veterinarians I know are neither horse owners nor would they be considered horse people.

Some veterinarians specialize only in treating horses. Others have a more general large animal practice, treating cattle, small ruminants, and pigs, as well as horses. Still others have a mixed practice where they treat almost all animal species. Equine specialists may have their own facilities for surgery and treatments, or they may rely on the referral of complicated cases to local referral hospitals.

As a horse owner as well as a veterinarian, I have found a few things to be really important when selecting a veterinarian for horses. Keeping in mind that all veterinarians make errors at some time, your veterinarian should be willing to admit when he or she is wrong and learn from the experience. Your veterinarian should be willing to listen to your description of problems. As the horse's owner, you will be more aware of slight differences in weight, way of going, attitude, and appetite that might indicate a problem than your veterinarian will be. If your veterinarian always dismisses your concerns as those of an over-anxious horse owner, he or she is risking the possibility that you may be correct about something being wrong. Veterinarians should always listen to the horse's owner.

Veterinarians should be willing to consult with other veterinarians and specialists regarding problems and possible treatments. A veterinarian working as a solo practitioner has less opportunity to physically interact with peers than does a veterinarian in a multi-person practice, but has plenty of opportunities to consult through the telephone and the internet. The Equine Clinicians Network (ECN) list is one online forum for consultation, where the advice of experts, as well as the experiences of veterinarians in the field, may be sought. ECN and other forums for professionals in veterinary medicine may be found online at netvet.wustl.edu/vetmed/list.htm

Your veterinarian should keep up with the current veterinary literature and periodically attend continuing education meetings. On top of all this, your veterinarian should always be available for emergencies or have an emergency contact available. Sounds like a pretty tall order to fill, doesn't it?

Maintaining the optimum health and well-being of our horses is a team effort, and knowledge of disease and of treatments is constantly evolving. Veterinarians, farriers, and horse owners must work together for the good of the horse. If you are not satisfied with your veterinarian, carefully analyze the situation to see if your reasons are valid. If your veterinarian refuses to give a particular treatment because he or she feels the procedure is too risky, for example, do not feel the vet is not giving your horse proper care. In some circumstances you may wish to pursue a second opinion. Your veterinarian should be perfectly comfortable with your doing so, as well as willing to discuss and possibly pursue other diagnoses, diagnostic approaches, and treatments.

If you have a good equine veterinarian, please treat him or her well. Such veterinarians are not always easy to find.

Editors Note: We would like to thank Dr. Valentine and Rural Heritage Journal