There is a wonderful idiom, several times used as the title to a movie and offering the comparative warning, “It shouldnt happen to a dog.” It refers to some proposed act or omission that is so unpleasant to humans, it should not even be wished on a dog (being a mere animal, it might be expected to bear most things, but not this). Human culture has grown up with animals a part of our lives. Whether as pets, living as one of the family in our own homes, or as working beasts, we value them for “who” they are and what they can do for us. This means treating them in much the same way as humans. If they get sick, we give them our medications. Sometimes, they retaliate by acting as incubators to encourage viruses to mutate and, as with “swine” or “bird” flu, return the favor by passing us infections to which we have no resistance. But, in general, we worry about them. Even the animals we propose to eat are stuffed full of antibiotics to keep them fit and healthy. So, keeping this real, there are many protections we have put in place for our animals. The most carefully monitored rules affect horses. These powerful animals have become a key part of the gambling industry, running in races for our excitement and jumping fences for our admiration.
As with most sports, the fear is that horses dosed with stimulants and other drugs might run faster and/or jump higher. Think Barry Bonds and the debate about the use of steroids in Major League Baseball for an understanding of the passion in the world of racing and equestrian sports. At the top of the sport, the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) carried out detailed research in the early part of this century and concluded it was unsafe to allow horses to compete if they were relying on painkillers. In 2004, the Federation moved toward a zero-tolerance policy. This was approved by the Veterinary Committee and representatives of the different national bodies. The risk of seriously injuring the horses was too great and this protective care was strongly endorsed by horse-lovers around the world. Horses should only be used when they are completely fit. Its therefore somewhat surprising to see the FEI change the policy to allow the use of a range of painkillers. Indeed, the decision has provoked outrage.
Yet, when it comes to humans, we routinely buy tramadol, dose ourselves and then carry on with sometimes energetic activities. The problem is the same as with horses. With pain suppressed, we can attempt to move normally and aggravate the existing injuries. As with everything, a balance has to be struck. Pain is inconvenient most of the time but nevertheless a useful warning when we might be overexerting ourselves. When we are recovering from injuries or learning to live within new physical limits, using tramadol is reasonable in the first stages of regaining mobility. But, in the long term, its better to recover muscle tone and build stamina without the help of drugs. That way, we learn coping strategies and need only use a painkiller when the pain flares up again. We are entitled to the same protection as horses.