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  Horses Hurt, Too. Pain Control in Horses    

Published: June 26-27, 2004 (Weekend Edition) in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News
Byline: By E. Kirsten Peters, Staff Writer
Reproduced with permission of the Daily News

Horses, like people, are in pain after major surgery. Intuitively, that fact would seem obvious. But until recently, scientific understanding and intuition were not finding common ground. "It amazes me that we were blind for so long," said Debra Sellon a veterinarian at Washington State University. Sellon, along with veterinarian Margaret-Mary McEwen and others at WSU's college of veterinary medicine, have completed one study and launched another dealing with post-surgical equine pain and how pain affects the speed of the horses' recovery.

The results thus far have been clear. After a common abdominal surgery for colic, horses that received 24 hours of narcotics in addition to anti-inflammatory treatment more quickly behaved like happy horses than did horses that received only anti-inflammatory drugs. Sellon said horses recovering from abdominal surgery traditionally have been given drugs like Advil or Aleve in humans. That's not a lot of pain relief for an animal recovering from the stress and pain of colic as well as the pain of abdominal surgical. "A few years ago I noticed that post-surgical horses lost their greeting behaviors," Sellon said. The horses stood quietly in their stalls, not greeting people and not even coming over for grain offered in a bucket, Sellon said.

Sellon and colleagues began a study that eventually included 31 horses, all of which had surgery for colic. "It was a double blind study, meaning we researchers didn't know which horses got what," she said. "We scored their behaviors, everything from whether their heads were up, or level, or low, and their ear positions, whether they responded when we called their name and if they'd come when we shook a grain bucket." The research already is changing the way veterinarians do business across the country. "I've talked with numerous vets who say they are now dosing with narcotics," Sellon said. The horses treated with 24 hours of narcotics also lost less weight and were able to leave the care of the vets sooner than their nontreated counterparts. "So it costs less for the owners," McEwen said.

As with changes in human medicine, some practices evolve only after the passage of a generation. "Before 1990, pain management was hardly mentioned in veterinary science at all, even for small animals (like cats and dogs). And there are still vets in private practice who are not using any analgesics because that's the way they were trained," McEwen said. "Basically, some of the older vets think if the animal is in its cage, lying there quietly, it's OK," Sellon said. "But now we know that sort of behavior is an indicator things are not OK." Sellon is quick to add that she is far from understanding everything that equine behaviors are communicating. "Horses communicate with each other in ways we don't recognize and I'm starting to wake up to that more and more," Sellon said.

The recent research also is changing what vet student are taught at WSU. "Teaching the next generation of vets about pain management is especially important for the large animals," said WSU veterinarian Kelly Fansworth. "Because we live with small animals, having them in our homes and being around them all day, we've clearly been more sensitive to their pain management needs. Now we can broaden the education of the next generation to the large animals as well." Pain management for animals is an elective, rather than a required course for WSU vet students. "But the ideas about observing and responding to pain are starting to be incorporated in all our classes here," Sellon said. The behavioral pain scale that Deb and her colleagues developed is really a huge step forward, McEwan said. "It makes it clear that horse behavior has meaning."

E. Kirsten Peters can be reached at (509) 334-6397 ext. 310 or by e-mail at <>.  

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