By: Maureen Gallatin

Nearly 400 veterinarians considered this question during a 3 1/2-hour panel discussion, reaching a consensus of, “Absolutely, yes. Practice can and should be ethical, even in the sport horse or racehorse world.” But it’s not always easy. The pressures applied by trainers or owners can be substantial.

Earlier in the day, at the 2016 American Association of Equine Practitioners convention, held Dec. 3-7 in Orlando, Florida, ethics speaker Chuck Gallagher presented a keynote talk titled Ethics, Integrity, and the Power of Choices in Life and Business. He highlighted that every choice has a consequence, and said the three primary reasons people have ethical lapses are financial problems, relationship problems, and health issues.

Ethical lapses don’t start out big, but they happen when there’s a need, an opportunity, then a rationalization. When life gets out of balance, human nature seeks quick solutions.

During the panel discussion, 10 veterinarians walked attendees through a series of case studies. The cases varied from questions of what a veterinarian is obligated to disclose (such as to owners, insurance companies, prospective buyers, on prepurchase exams; and so forth) to questions of trainers requesting questionable or unapproved services, such as neurectomy for caudal heel pain or “cutting tails” in performance horses (”nicking,” or cutting tendons to cause elevated tail carriage); dispensing certain drugs; or signing health certificates for horses the veterinarian hasn’t examined.

Several prominent themes emerged.

Veterinarians must stay within the rules. The rules vary depending on the competition’s governing body–from Fédération Equestre Internationale to the United States Equestrian Federation to the American Quarter Horse Association to state and national horse racing jurisdictions. And the rules change, so the practitioner is responsible for staying current.

The owner should always be included in a discussion, an exam, or a treatment. The owner’s hopes and expectations might be different from the trainer’s, and ultimately the veterinarian is working for the owner. Good communication pre-empts many ethical questions. Each racetrack veterinarian on the panel agreed that “the owner always gets the bill.”

When trainers or owners ask veterinarians to do something unethical, they’re not just asking them to bend the rules; they’re asking them to put their license at risk.

Gallagher stressed that it’s especially easy to make unethical choices when it seems socially acceptable. Trainers or clients will say, “Everyone (or Dr. So and So) is doing it.” Still, veterinarians told stories of standing their ground and being willing to “fire” a client who was pressing for them to do something unethical.

Several said they’ve asked themselves questions like, do I want to be the popular vet who does things for people or the ethical vet? If I were called on to defend this action or treatment on the witness stand, could I? With Facebook and other social media so prevalent, am I willing to make a choice that could be made public?

In conclusion, the panel indicated every veterinarian must do what will let them sleep at night. They must act in the best interest of the animal. That emboldens others to do right also. Determine practice ethics, so everyone is on the same page.

Taking the high road, so to speak, results in a good reputation, improved communication with clients and staff, and practice growth. So it seems that honesty is the best policy.

Chuck Gallagher moderated the discussion among panelists Hope Batchelor, DVM; Todd Brokken, DVM; Joe Carter, DVM; Alan Chastain, DVM; David Frisbie, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, ACVSMR; Scott Hay, DVM; Melissa McKee, DVM; Rick Mitchell, DVM, MRCVS, Dipl. ACVSMR; Foster Northrop, DVM; and Karen A. Nyrop, DVM.