Is Veterinary Medicine Doing Enough to Protect Horses at the Track?

Patty Khuly, DVM
Published: July 18, 2011
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Make no mistake: Nicholas Dodman is among veterinary medicine’s most well-known figures in animal behavior. His assessment of canine and feline behavior has been textbook fodder for decades now. So it is that when he has something to say about racehorse welfare …I’m intrigued.

But he’s not a horse vet … is he? No, not at all. But that didn’t keep him from having his say in the issue of the JAVMA (Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association) that hit my snail-mailbox yesterday.

In fact, that was his point: The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), veterinary medicine’s leading organization of horse vets, is missing the boat on some aspects of racehorse welfare reform. Here’s the lion’s share of his letter to the editor:

While the problem of drugs in horse racing has the attention of members of Congress and the public, it is time for veterinarians to speak out against drug use in American racehorses. Sadly, some organizations that purport to speak for the equine veterinary profession are not leading efforts to end the use of performance-enhancing drugs in racehorses. In fact, the president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners warned that "[t]he very broad language of the [Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act] could eliminate, as written, beneficial treatment of active equine athletes at any time — not just on the day of competition."

Horses that need drugs to compete should not be raced. Lame horses should never be loaded into the starting gate. Sore horses should be given adequate time to recuperate. Entering an unsound horse in a race puts all the horses and jockeys at greater risk of injury and even death. Putting horses at such risk for gambling purposes should not be tolerated. Veterinarians swear an oath to protect animal health and welfare, and they should be the first to condemn such practices.

There is also no excuse for permissive rules that allow administration just hours before a race of medications such as furosemide to prevent exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. As the chairman of the Association of Racing Commissioners International stated, "That just does not pass the smell test with the public or anyone else except horse trainers who think it necessary to win a race." North America stands alone in allowing the race-day use of such drugs.

Even worse, violations of existing drug rules are far too common. According to The New York Times, only two of the top 20 trainers by purses won have never had a medication violation. The Racing Medical and Testing Consortium website lists numerous violations related to anabolic steroids, corticosteroids, narcotics, and other drugs that can mask inflammation and pain. These are just some of the substances that can currently be detected through tests. Barry Irwin, the owner of this year's Kentucky Derby winner, has called for involvement of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to catch those who might cheat using new designer drugs that current tests do not detect.

Thankfully, there are prominent voices within the horse racing community who support legislation to rid the sport of performance-enhancing drugs. Roy and Gretchen Jackson, who owned the late Barbaro, and others sent an open letter calling for support of bipartisan legislation introduced by Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico and Representative Ed Whitfield of Kentucky. Many well-known breeders, owners, and trainers responded by adding their support for this effort.

As veterinarians, we swear an oath to use our scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health. We need to speak out in favor of efforts to protect horses at the track. These noble creatures deserve no less.

Wow. Interesting letter. But I do have to wonder how effective expositions like his can be, given that Dodman’s clout lies on another playing field altogether. Is calling the AAEP out enough to effect change? I don’t have the answer, but I do know I’ll be having fun watching the process.

It’s post time! And they’re off!

Dr. Patty Khuly

Pic of the day: Horse Portrait 6 by threeseamonsters

 horse racing, race horse, drugs in horse racing, equine athletes, safety for race horses, race horse health