While traveling from the United States to New Zealand, a horse on an airplane becomes agitated and unruly. An accompanying groom makes numerous attempts to calm the horse, but to no avail. So, the groom injects the horse with a tranquilizer.
Because horses, in general, fly well, scenarios like this are rare, but what if it happens and you don't have a tranquilizer? This is what concerns Joe Santarelli Sr., president of the Animal Transportation Association.
Since 9/11, airlines are more wary of grooms carrying tranquilizers. If individuals in the horse industry want to ensure that tranquilizers are available on planes in the future, they better start taking action, said Santarelli recently at the AATA's 29th annual conference in Washington, D.C. This issue was just one of several that was discussed at the conference.
"The airlines, for the most part, have taken a traditional view to allow most of the responsibility (for horse medications) to fall on the shipper, and until 9/11, that worked," Santarelli said. "Now, because of security in place, airlines are taking a different view of that, and it is becoming more of an issue."
Santarelli, who is also treasurer of Mersant International Ltd., a company that transports horses, among other cargo, says that while some veterinarians are uncomfortable with even having nonveterinarians handle veterinary drugs, it occurs and is a necessity. There are just not enough veterinarians to accompany all horses during flights.
"Part of the reason why most veterinary associations have been reluctant, I believe, to have a nonveterinary individual administer drugs is because the definition of a groom, for the past 30 years, has been anybody who accompanies an animal during transport, whether they are qualified or not," Santarelli said.
Recently, however, the AATA managed to spur the development of an international groom assessment program that establishes groom competency. The National Proficiency Test Council of Great Britain independently assesses this program, called the AATA Equine Registration Program.
And now, the International Air Transport Association's Live Animal Regulations, which mandate standards for transporting live animals by commercial airlines, require that at least one competent groom accompany a horse in flight.
Santarelli hopes that this program will help eliminate some of the unease that veterinarians feel regarding grooms carrying tranquilizers.
The problem still remains, however, that with heightened security, airlines are wary of having an unfamiliar person on an aircraft in possession of a tranquilizer.
"There is a need to develop a code of practice on the responsible use of animal medicines for transportation," Santarelli said. He would like to enlist the cooperation of the IATA to create an airline emergency kit that an airline crew could control and dispense when needed. Having such a kit would also simplify keeping track of drugs.
If airlines were amenable to this, it might cut down on the time an unfamiliar person would be in possession of a tranquilizer. The pilot still might have to transfer the kit to the groom though, and this raises other issues. "After 9/11, there is the issue of cockpit access and someone you don't know having access," Santarelli said.
According to Dr. Scott Palmer, vice president of the AAEP, the association does not currently have a policy regarding the administration of medications by grooms during air transport.
And although the AAEP is supportive of working toward a solution to the problem, he says the association must wrangle with several other issues before developing a policy.
"Our policy statements are based upon a number of issues, the primary one being the health and welfare of animals on the aircraft," Dr. Palmer said. "The second is that any policy that we would make would have conform to ethical and legal requirements, and finally, as part of that, any AAEP policy developed to address this issue will need to meet the requirements of a valid veterinary-client-patient relationship."
This relationship requires veterinarians to assume responsibility for making clinical judgments about an animal's health and treatment, have sufficient and timely knowledge of that animal's health, and be available for emergency care, if needed.
But how can veterinarians adhere to this third responsibility if they are on the ground and a horse is in the sky? Veterinarians must consider liability issues when leaving tranquilizers in the hands of grooms, Dr. Palmer said. He says that most veterinarians receive liability insurance through the AVMA's Professional Liability Insurance Trust, and this issue should be discussed with them.
"The issue is complicated, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be pursued," Dr. Palmer said.
To date, only the New Zealand Equine Veterinary Association has addressed the issue. At an open forum session at the AATA conference, Dr. Ivan Bridge, president-elect of the NZEVA, detailed their Quality Assurance Program for the Use of Prescription Animal Remedies by Grooms Traveling with Horses by Sea or Air. Developed by the NZEVA at the request of the New Zealand Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry, the program covers instruction, requirements, responsibilities, and administrative procedures.
This program, which has been approved and adopted by the government of New Zealand, may serve as a prototype for equine associations throughout the world.
Currently, the AATA is coordinating a working group to continue developing a strategy and procedure to solve the problem. For now, however, there seem to be more questions than answers regarding the issue in the United States.