My equine practice is 95% ambulatory. That word in vet medicine means, ‘we come to you’. This article is drawn from my experience as a farm call vet. I am sure that your own vet will agree with what I have to say. Equine vets with haul in hospitals may not concur. Here are some things that my ambulatory colleagues and I would like you to know.
First, I’d like you to know the basics on what to do if your horse is not acting right. If you don’t know how, or are lacking the simple tools to take a Temperature, Pulse, and Respiration from your horse, I urge you to ask your vet for some education the next time he or she is at your place. If you call about a sick horse and provide us with just those 3 observations (the TPR), plus gut sounds, we will know whether he needs to be seen, and how quickly. Total cost of the digital thermometer and a stethoscope at the drug store is right around $25. Cheaper than an emergency farm call. By far.
I share emergency calls with five veterinarians. In our association, each of us is obligated to take emergencies for the other practices one night and one weekend in six. Under this arrangement it is not unusual for me to go on an emergency call to a farm I have never been to, meet an anxious horse owner for the first time, and examine a sick horse that I have never seen before. To add to the drama, this often happens in the middle of the night.
A week ago I was on night emergency duty and got a call from an owner who uses one of the vets I was covering for. The call came in at 10:00 PM. “My horse Pepe has been doing the craziest thing all day. He is holding his left hind leg off the ground and is shaking it. Then he puts it back down and touches his toe to the ground and then jerks it right back up and starts shaking it again. Can you come out to see him?”
“Do you mean tonight? Like now?”
“Oh, please! I know I can’t sleep tonight if he isn’t helped. I think he has a broken leg.”
Here is a fact. Horses (or people, I suppose) with broken legs never, ever shake them. I knew that he had an abscess, and some horses do find some relief from that pain by shaking their leg, just like you might shake a hand that has just been injured. I tried to explain this and told the client that Pepe could wait until morning. I suggested she call either her vet or a farrier then. I explained that, given the hour, the charge for the emergency visit would be high. All my talk wasn’t persuasive, and after a few more minutes on the phone I decided it would take less energy for me just to drive out to her place. She told me that GPS didn’t work well in finding her farm. I found out that her directions didn’t either. I finally arrived well after 11 PM. The barn wasn’t wired for electricity, so I had the owner hold a flashlight. After some digging I was able to release Pepe’s abscess with my hoof knife. Two tablespoons of pus squirted out and within a few minutes he was standing on the leg. No more shaking. I got back home around 1 AM. Guess who couldn’t get to sleep then. I want you to know that if you notice something during the day, that is the time to call for help. Please don’t wait until 10 PM. It’s so much easier on your horse and on the vet.
I am more than annoyed when someone bad mouths another vet in front of me. It’s helpful to hear what Dr X came out and did for your horse, but I have no patience for, “I just don’t think that he or she has any idea what they are doing.” When Dr X was out to see your horse, it was a different day under different circumstances, and what the horse was exhibiting that day may have been very different as well. I want you to know that farm vets talk to each other all the time. We see each other at CE meetings, call each other about puzzling cases, and in most cases we are friends. Please refrain from dissing them.
Over several months I have been attending a horse who had Lyme disease. Subsequent lab reports show liver damage. I have been in touch with a clinician at a referral hospital and an internal medicine specialist about the case and have followed all their suggestions. If you saw the horse today, you might say that he looks fine. However, he just isn’t the horse that he was. Despite great owner compliance and, all the high level advice that we have implemented, I am stumped as to why there hasn’t been significant change. There are times when some problems in some horses just leave me baffled. I want you to know that sometimes we just don’t know. I often refer cases, and sometimes they don’t know. These situations are frustrating for both owners and vets.
It used to be that large animal practitioners were lone wolves out there from sunup to sundown, getting tired at days end, and perhaps making mistakes in judgement. Many of us have found that we can get more done, and far more effectively, when we have a good technician with us. I always hire techs that have been in the horse business for years and are skilled at handling animals. Many times I have been saved from a kick or bite by an observant assistant who is aware of how a horse is about to react. I want you to know that if a vet’s assistant says to you, “let me take the lead shank”, it is because they sense that there may be trouble brewing. Give it up willingly, knowing that everyone will be safer as a result.
A few months ago I was driving down a road that I haven’t been on for 5 years, and saw a farm that I used to call on. I recognized a couple of horses in the paddock, so I knew it was the same owner. I wondered why they switched vets. Was it something I said or did? Whatever the reason, my hope is that they are happy with their new vet. Your choice of a veterinarian involves many factors, and it’s not just his or her head knowledge. Who you pick and stay with is based on who you can depend on and trust. This often comes down to a personality issue. I want you to know that I recognize that some personalities just don’t click and once realized, it might be time for a parting of the ways.
Finally, here is my take on social media. Years ago I was accused, through facebook, of ignoring someone’s urgent need for a veterinarian. We log in every call that comes to us, and that supposed call never got to me. I had a number of clients ask me later, “What was that all about?” To this day I don’t know. Unless you know the facts, and actually, even if you do know the facts, refrain from spreading that juicy news about someone’s barn, vet, farrier, or dentist. Consider the source. Information passed from one person to another is quickly distorted. I’d like you to know that no matter how sophisticated social media gets, rumors and gossip will always be just that.
I have aired some things I’d like you to know. Care for equal time? As a horse owner, what would you like your vet to know? The question makes me a little apprehensive, but still, I’d really like to see your comments. You can contact me by email (see below) or through the “Horse’s Maine and NH”. If I get enough comments to make an article I will write it up, and it will appear in a future article.