Is masking pain to allow horses to be ridden ever morally acceptable?

  • In her new book Animals, Ethics and Us, vet and past president of the British Equine Veterinary Association Madeleine L.H. Campbell discusses the different ways that people use animals and the moral issues surrounding this.

    In this third and final extract, she questions whether masking pain in horses is ever acceptable

    Suppose that we had a fairly old horse with degenerative joint arthritis due to an injury the horse had sustained years ago. Most of the time the horse appears sound, but occasionally, particularly when the ground is hard, the horse seems stiff and a bit sore. Would it be ethical to treat that horse with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) painkillers in order to “make it more comfortable” and allow the rider to continue riding it gently around the countryside?

    In starting the ethical consideration of this question, there is a technical issue that first needs to be addressed. Prolonged treatment with some NSAIDs can cause gastric ulceration and liver compromise. If the level and frequency of treatment required to keep the horse pain-free during ridden exercise is sufficient to cause these side-effects, then treatment in my view is not ethically warranted, as one would be merely creating other, longer-term welfare issues by attempting to ameliorate exercise-related pain. But let us assume that the horse’s clinical symptoms are mild, and that it can be kept sound/pain-free during ridden exercise by occasional, judicious use of NSAIDs at a level that does not cause side effects. Would it then be ethical to treat the horse? Bernard Rollin argues in An introduction to veterinary medical ethics that it is not. He suggests that “it is clearly not in the animal’s best interests to mask the pain”.

    To me, the case seems less clear-cut. Let us consider for a moment the benefits of riding the horse whilst it is medicated. Certainly, there are benefits to the rider, who enjoys exercising the horse and probably experiences positive psychological and physical effects as the result of doing so. One could argue that there is no ethical difference between a rider subjecting the horse to treatment in order to be able to carry on enjoying those benefits and a dog owner who goes out to work, subjecting a dog to hours in solitary confinement each day, in order to be able to enjoy the benefit of walking that dog and sharing its company during the evenings and weekends. In Rollin’s view, such human benefits are not sufficient to trade against the harms to the horse of treating it with NSAIDs. But I am not so sure. Whilst I accept that allowing the animal to continue exercising whilst being treated with painkillers might potentially (but not certainly) exacerbate the rate of joint degeneration, I believe that there are some benefits to the animal as well as to the rider to be traded against these (potential) harms. In Rollin’s bucolic vision, horses with lameness issues are retired to the field by loving owners and perfectly looked after into their dotage. The economic and societal reality is harsher: many horses who are no longer able to perform a useful ridden function will either be euthanased (which is not necessarily an ethical problem), or — much worse — neglected or abandoned. Surely, it is better for the welfare of a horse to be made comfortable by treatment with NSAIDs and to consequently continue being cared for as a useful, valued conveyance than to be left, uncared for, in a field? Furthermore, the horse itself might prefer to be out being ridden than to be left at pasture, particularly if it is muddy or cold, or if the horse has little equine company. Many of us who live and work with horses would swear blind that a certain horse prefers to be with humans and “doing something” than left, retired and ignored, in a paddock whilst other horses are ridden. Such arguments are currently difficult to prove, and there is always a risk of anthropomorphizing. However, recently there has been considerable research interest in using horses’ facial expressions both to analyse when they are in pain and when they are happy or enjoying an activity. These techniques could presumably be used in combination to assess whether a horse enjoyed being ridden whilst being treated with NSAIDs for mild lameness or not, and that information could be factored into the harm:benefit ethical analysis.

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    If we think that it could at least sometimes be ethical to treat a lame horse with painkillers in order to enable it to be ridden gently for pleasure, might it also be ethical to treat the same horse in the same way to enable them to do a bit more? Suppose that the owner of the horse that we have described above wants to use it to accompany her son who is taking his pony on a low-level endurance ride. Is there actually any ethical difference between medicating the horse in order to allow it to do that or to go for a Sunday hack? If not, what is the ethical difference between medicating the horse to allow it to act as an accompanying animal, and medicating it in order to allow it to compete in a similar level endurance ride itself? Clearly, if the rules of competition ban medication, it would be unethical in a sporting (and professional) sense to treat the horse. But suppose (as is sometimes the case at low-level competitions) that there are no relevant rules. If we think that treatment is ethical in that situation, then what is the ethical difference between treating this horse and treating the high-level competition horse discussed elsewhere in this chapter? Or suppose that the rules of sport ban the administration of NSAIDs during competition, but do not prohibit the horse being treated by an intra-articular injection of anti-inflammatories some weeks prior to competition. The pain-relieving, lameness-masking effects of that injection could persist until the competition date if the injection was carefully timed. Yet, from a welfare point of view, an intra-articular injection is undoubtedly more stressful and painful for the horse than occasional in-feed medication with oral NSAIDs, and also carries a risk of introducing infection into the joint. Perversely, some rules designed to protect horse welfare and provide a “level playing field” for sport may encourage the use of methods that are actually worse for welfare, meaning that one could even construct an ethical argument that the more ethical thing to do is to treat the horse with the banned oral drug. As so often in ethics, where to draw the line between what constitutes a reasonable and an unreasonable use (or treatment) of an animal is complicated…

    Some minor edits have been made to the text where the original includes cross-references to other parts of the book or other sources.

    Price: Animals, Ethics and Us can be purchased for £18.95 from 5m Publishing
    Published by: 5m Publishing, 2019

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