I thought this week that Grant Miller?s Veterinary Viewpoint column in our August issue of the Horse Journal?concerning the frequent necessity of equine sedation?deserved some whole-hearted support of his points.
Grant?s observations about owners? anxiety about sedation for veterinary procedures surprised me, at first. Horse owners can often be found guilty of placing their own human sensitivities or anxieties on their horses, who almost never really have the same sensitivities to begin with. The owners transfer their own anxiety about things like cold, wind, jumps, trails?and sedation?to their horses.
Those human anxieties usually don't have a basis in fact, and that's definitely the case with equine sedation. Horses are large to giant animals who can easily hurt themselves and can very easily injure you in fright or panic. They can also injure a veterinarian attempting to help them.? The list of diagnostic and therapeutic procedures when a veterinarian needs a horse to stand quietly is as long as your arm, and he or she absolutely can't do things like clean out or stitch up a serious wound if a fractious horse is trying to run over, kick or bite them.
As Grant notes in his column, sedation is not anesthesia. Many of us have suffered the side effects of anesthesia (especially the long-lasting side effects), either after serious surgery or from more routine things like having your wisdom teeth removed, for instance. Even anesthesiologists don't completely understand how or why the drugs and gases they use (almost always) produce a total lack of feeling and amnesia, but the drugs you veterinarian uses for sedation are not as powerful. they're not as long-lasting, and they've only extremely rarely been shown to have side effects.
To me, a sedated horse looks like He's really, really drunk?the horse is blissfully happy, unaware of what's going on around him, and unable to move his body parts. But it wears off much, much more quickly than alcohol, and they don't have that nasty hangover.
As Grant points out, a sedated horse never loses consciousness, and they only extremely rarely lose their balance and fall down. Veterinarians use the drugs he mentioned because they want the horse to stay on his feet and to be able to safely breathe on his own, but to be unable to flinch or strike.
The three sedatives Grant mentions really are amazing drugs, because they render the horse safe while allowing him to stand?an important issue because one of the trickiest parts of equine surgery is keeping a recumbent, immobile and unconscious horse breathing. Accomplishing that requires a massive bellows-like machine that thuds eerily along throughout an equine surgery.
Let me give you several examples of how veterinarians have regularly used sedatives to treat horses on our farm. Most of the time, these situations would have been far more traumatic, if not impossible, without sedatives.
The first, and most common, example is when Grant comes to our barn to power-float teeth, which he does four or five times a year. For almost 100 percent of the horses, it simply would not be possible to put a speculum in their mouths and then stick that drill between their jaws if they weren?t sedated?period. But power-floating is one of the most important and most beneficial procedures you can do on a horse each year?and sedation makes it safely possible.
Many times We've had to call vets to come on the double to stitch up horses who?ve been injured in the field or in the stall. No vet can thoroughly clean out a wound, inspect it for foreign bodies, and then stitch it up unless the horse is standing quietly enough to allow him or her to work. It would be crazy for someone holding a horse with a six-inch gash on his shoulder or hock to not allow the use of sedatives to calm and still the horse. But I know that some people would try, from misguided fear. Believe me, it would be far more traumatic for an injured horse?and for you and your veterinarian?if you didn't sedate him.
And Here's my favorite story of how sedatives can be everyone?s friend. More than a dozen years ago, when we were living in Virginia, our first homebred horse, Shawn, who was then 2, somehow got a long vine wrapped around his head, neck and shoulders in the late spring. He could barely move, and he was really anxious. We tried to unwind the vine without any success, and he was so fractious that we didn't dare use a knife or scissors to try to cut it, afraid we'd cut him instead of the vine, since he flinched and tried to strike at every movement of the vine.
So we called our veterinarian, who fortunately arrived in only about 10 minutes. He immediately administered a fast-acting sedative to Shawn, and moments later he and I were cutting the vine away as Shawn stood like a rock. Once the vet arrived, it couldn?t have taken five minutes before Shawn was completely untangled, and since it was a short-lasting sedative, in another 10 minutes he was happily eating his dinner, none the worse for the experience.
that's an example of how we really an achieve better living through chemistry.