by Laurel Scott
Because of local restrictions on the burial of dead horses, the options for many Maryland owners, until recently, have been to send their horses’ bodies to a rendering plant, arrange for private cremations or send them to a laboratory that will necropsy them and then arrange for their disposal.
For smaller barns in particular, the latter option was once an affordable alternative to the so-called “knackers.” It also had the added benefit of determining whether the horse’s demise was preventable – and whether it suffered from a contagious disease that might have spread elsewhere.
However, last February, in a move considered long overdue by the Maryland Department of Agriculture, the state’s animal health labs increased their equine necropsy and disposal fees to more accurately reflect actual costs, including rising fuel prices, as well as the lack of government subsidization for non-food animal services (see The Equiery’s March issue, archived at www.equiery.com). In addition, the fees for disposal services were separated from that of the necropsy.
The reaction among Maryland horsemen has been mixed. Some, like Worton event rider/trainer Kim Meier (who lost horses in last year’s equine herpes out-break), seemed resigned to the increase. “Prices go up on every-
thing, and somehow in the horse industry they do not increase to reflect the actual costs in many areas,” she said. “For instance, my feed prices elevate, yet I am reluctant to raise my board. Gas is triple what it was 10 yrs ago, but my vanning fees are not even double. So it is not unwarranted that state fees increase.”
Others, like Maryland Horse Breeders Association president James Steele Jr. (who’s also chairman of the Maryland Horse Industry Board), feel it’s a “travesty” that horses can be necropsied in other states (such as Pennsylvania, see below) for less than they can in Maryland. There is also some concern that the increased cost might discourage people whose horses should be necropsied from getting the procedure done, impacting attempts to keep tabs on potential outbreaks. “The increase in the necropsy fee for horses greater than 300 pounds is [a substantial amount] over the previous rate – plus disposal,” noted Maryland Horse Council Vice President Jane Seigler, co- owner of Silver Spring’s Reddemeade Equestrian Center. “This might be a factor for some owners.”
Steele agreed. “I can understand that [the state] didn’t want horses being dumped because it was cheaper to go there than to Valley Protein,” he said. “But with what their rates are now, they’re not going to get horses to come in – so we’re not going to know, a lot of times, when things are bad … that was a way for the state to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s going on. It’s just not right.” The responsibility for doing the “right thing” will ultimately come down to the owner, said MHC President Michael Erskine, a veterinarian. “I do have concerns about [the increased cost] being a deterrent, in that we don’t find out about things as soon as we should or could,” he said. “But I think it’s just the realities of a limited resource.”
As the Riding & Boarding Stable representative on the Maryland Horse Industry Board, Carol Wicker is also concerned – but for different reasons associated with smaller stables like her Fence Post Farms in Pasadena. “I’m really very unhappy with the large increase, especially for incineration of older horses that die,” she said. “I don’t consider them pets, but they’ve been loyal servants, and we’ve been having ours cremated. And at this large
increase, we probably won’t be able to afford that in the future. I just think it was too large an increase across the board at one time.”
Maryland vs. Pennsylvania
Currently, New Bolton Cen- ter near Kennett Square, Pennsylvania is one of the low cost leaders in the region for necropsies and disposals. Unlike in Maryland, where the rates are different for in-state and out-of-state clients, New Bolton has
one across-the-board fee sched-
ule for most services.
According to Dr. Perry Habecker, chief of New Bolton’s Large Animal Necropsy Service, these services are to some extent self-subsidized, with the costs underwritten in part by the Pennsylvania taxpayer. “It depends on … how much every state wants to underwrite animal diagnostics,” he explained. “States like Pennsylvania realize the massive input to our economy from our Ag sector, and feel obligated to provide them with economical diagnostic services. If we don’t see any of this stuff, 1) you lose the people who are capable of diagnosing it; 2) you don’t know what kind of disease incidence is circulating in the background; and 3) you never know when a bioterrorist slips one by you.”
As for the cost of these services in Maryland, “I think that the big issue is body disposal,” Habecker noted. “They have to address it with a big fee, and we’re sort of eating the cost, and we have an outlet for rendering disposal. I’m convinced that’s the big difference.”
Many Maryland vets are aware of these price differences; but that doesn’t mean clients will be stampeding north for equine necropsies – nor would New Bolton be equipped to handle that. As Habecker pointed out, every lab has its own advantages and its own areas of expertise, and necropsy is only part of the cost. Indeed, the price of transportation and disposal might make the trip north too expensive in many cases. Then there’s the time factor. “It’s often a whole day event for someone to bring us an animal, and it comes down to what the client considers convenient,” he said.
Public Heath Concerns
To Steele, the rate hike seems an unfair burden. “They said they were going to raise everybody, but they didn’t,” he said. “They say the other forms of livestock [food animals] are subsidized because of mad cow disease,
avian influenza, and stuff like that. So they get their necropsies at what were once our normal prices. But you don’t do a tenfold increase overnight!”
The increased disposal prices don’t help, either. “Granted, I know fuel prices went up,” Steele said. “It’s one thing if a person says ‘My old horse who’s 30 years old died, and I want you to cremate him.’ But people in production agriculture who are raising horses for sale cannot afford to do that, and won’t do that.”
Steele thinks that the necropsy rate hike has public health ramifications, too, citing a case of equine rabies that was believed to be a toothache until a post-mortem proved otherwise. “People were all in its mouth, and this, that and the other,” he explained. “And if that horse hadn’t been ‘posted’ [necropsied], no one who had been around that animal would have known it was carrying rabies.”
He likened the situation to the need for policemen; since they are so vital to the public safety, he asserted, the bottom line shouldn’t be a factor. “I don’t cry so much that they’re doing it at a loss; they’re providing a service in order to get something, information on what’s going on,” he commented. “I know the Ag Department said they were trying to bring [prices] back in line with [the cost of] services … but it’s the same way with firemen; this is a public health issue.
“If horses are truly one of the top three in agriculture, and agriculture is the biggest industry in the state, you would think you’d want to do stuff to help the industry,” he continued. “So you’d think there’d be a way there could be a subsidy for the necropsies for legitimate producers trying to find out [about potentially infectious/contagious health problems].”
As Erskine explained, “The subsidies available for [state veterinarian Guy Hohenhaus] are in investigations for infectious and contagious diseases. So when you’re doing a necropsy to see if a horse had laminitis or Cushing’s disease or a twisted colon, those are [lower state priorities] than avian influenza or Mad Cow disease. From the public health [standpoint], the biggest one from horses that would qualify is rabies.”
In certain cases, the state of Maryland will pay for equine necropsies and disposals. As Hohen- haus explained, “[Veterinary] reports lead to investigation. Investigation may lead to regulatory action. Regulatory action may lead to the or- dering of diagnostics (to confirm or refute suspected cause). In that case, we pay … and when we order tests, we cover the disposal.” But, he stressed, this does not mean free state necropsies for every reported case. For example, “During the racetrack- associated herpes outbreak of ’06, we ceased ordering necropsies once the diagnosis was established,” he said.
Cases that do not qualify for state-funded necropsies might well be addressed by the Maryland Horse Council’s new Business & Stables: Economic Development committee and its new Equine Health and Welfare committee. “These committees will focus on issues of importance to Maryland business and stable owners, and on equine health issues,” said Seigler. “[They] could consider ways to assist facility owners who suffer catastrophic loss through disease outbreaks, which for some reason do not qualify for state-funded necropsies – for example, by establishing special funds, or by working with insurance companies to provide coverage. Anyone interested in joining the committees in this work should contact [me] at email@example.com.”
Erskine believes it’s certainly possible to procure additional funding for services like necropsies. “I think there is a state interest in an agricultural industry like horses, and as diseases emerge and are potentially contagious, there may be some room for state involvement from the subsidized standpoint, because there’s a public interest in protecting the horse industry,” he said. “Maybe there are things, in the future, that can be done through grants or whatever for disease surveillance. I think there are places where money can come from; they may be private resources or corporate resources that are looking to study something … or research disease incidence.”
As for the increased cost of disposals, “I don’t think it’s an ideal situation,” Erskine admitted. “I’m not sure if that’s something that will end up being a problem, and it kind of relates to the slaughter issue, because you do start to just pile up the costs associated with doing the right thing in the right way.”