Faculty members utilize technology to improve healthcare for horses

Most people know how innovation and technology have revolutionized medical care for humans, but those same advancements have also transformed veterinary medicine. That progress is obvious at Virginia Tech’s Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center (EMC), where faculty are providing 21st century healthcare for horses ranging from backyard pleasure horses to world-class athletes.

    Alison Smith (center) with a patient

"Advances in technology have allowed us to diagnose and treat disease in ways that were previously impossible,” said Dr. Nat White, the Jean Ellen Shehan Professor of Veterinary Medicine and director of the EMC. “Technical capabilities in veterinary medicine have brought us leap years ahead of what we would have dreamed even 10 years ago.”

EMC is one of three campuses of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine (VMRCVM). Its team of 10 board-certified specialists stays on the cutting edge not only because they have to — they train undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate veterinary students — but because they want to.

“We have a team of experts who are completely focused on their specialty and know that they can call on each other to augment patient treatment,” said Dr. Curry Keoughan, clinical assistant professor of equine lameness and surgery. “Our role as educators means that we’re always seeking innovation.”

As a result of new technologies and advanced veterinary research, team members at this full-service, state-of-the-art equine healthcare facility are leading the way in pursuing new remedies for the well-being of all horses. Three areas in which these advances are evident are diagnostics, elective surgery, and emergency and critical care.


Diagnostics have improved dramatically through the usage of improved imaging modalities including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), digital radiography, high-resolution ultrasound and nuclear scintigraphy. With the acquisition of a Hallmarq open 0 .3 Tesla MRI system in April 2004, the facility became the first equine hospital in the eastern United States to offer MRI.


Faculty members testing a new gait analysis system. Faculty members are testing the new high-speed digital video system.

“We’re seeing horses here that need that next step in diagnosis including high-performance horses with subtle injuries that need further evaluation,” White said.

A unique high-speed equine treadmill allows clinicians to replicate graded exercise in a controlled environment, making it an important tool for assessing upper-airway problems and heart abnormalities. The addition of a high-speed digital camera in October 2006 has allowed faculty members to perform detailed gait analysis, lameness diagnosis, and hoof balancing in horses.

“We are thrilled by the possibilities offered by this new gait analysis system,” White said. “The benefits of slowing or freezing high-quality digital images of a horse at full gallop are endless.”

Elective Surgery

A greater number of owners are choosing to have elective surgeries — typically defined as non-emergency procedures — performed on their horses at the facility. The hospital’s five board-certified surgeons completed almost 500 such procedures in 2006, as compared with only 400 similar operations one decade earlier — a 20 percent increase since 1996.

According to White, clients now have a variety of options for addressing ailments and afflictions that, although not life-threatening, can inhibit their horse’s performance or reduce the quality of the animal’s life.

“Non-emergency conditions such as bone chips and ligament injuries can be treated more effectively than in the past,” White said. “This is an exciting time for equine surgeons because new technologies and techniques are allowing us to correct many of these abnormalities and return horses to full health.”

Orthopedic and soft-tissue surgery has benefited from new minimally invasive tools and techniques including lasers, endoscopy, and arthroscopy, leading to lower rates of inflammation and infection, as well as shorter recuperation periods.

“The most recent technical advances have been in the surgeon’s ability to use modern instrumentation during surgery to minimize trauma to the tissues,” White said. “These modalities allow us to be extremely accurate with our surgical manipulation.”

Emergency and Critical Care

Quality care and rapid response time often mean the difference between life and death for the sick or injured horse. The campus has fulfilled a crucial need in the region as a 24 hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week, premier equine emergency facility. In the past five years, the hospital’s emergency caseload has reached more than 800 horses per year.

    A client bringing his two horses to the center for an exam

“Less invasive procedures have been very beneficial,” said Dr. Sarah Dukti, clinical assistant professor in emergency and critical care. “Not only are the patients more comfortable, but we are seeing less trauma and less damage to soft tissue.”

Dr. Jennifer Brown, clinical assistant professor in emergency care and equine surgery, reports that some of the most common equine emergencies include colic (disease of the gastrointestinal tract), wounds, musculoskeletal injuries, diarrhea, neonatal complications, and respiratory distress. Some symptoms — such as recumbency (the animal is down and cannot get up), depression, severe bleeding, and colic — signal that urgent medical attention is needed.

“It is imperative that the veterinarian be contacted immediately any time a horse is displaying significant abnormal behavior — for example, he is off-feed or is not walking straight,” Brown said. “Survival rates for many conditions are directly correlated to early diagnosis and treatment so the sooner the patient is seen, the better.”

The exceptional quality of treatment available as a result of these new technologies has attracted many clients to the center.

“We are a very well-equipped facility offering multiple levels of specialty,” Keoughan said. “Our dedication to the highest level of care for both emergency and elective procedures is unsurpassed.”

  • For more infomation on this topic, contact Marjorie Musick at mzmusick@vt.edu or (703) 771-6881.

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    A patient (center) of the equine medical center
    One of the equine medical center's surgical teams at work

Trail ride

    Children and an adult (center) at one of the event's featured programs

In June 2007, the center helped sponsor the Virginia Horse Council's 2007 Legislative Trail Ride.

The event, in its 27th year, featured food, fellowship, tours of the facility, and educational activities for children with a focus on veterinary medicine.

Learn more about the trail ride in the news story.

Did you know?

Virginia Tech also has an Equine Science emphasis and an Equestrian Club and Team.

The Animal and Poultry Sciences Department offers the equine science emphasis to help prepare students

Virginia Tech's Equestrian Club and Team sent a record number of Regional Qualifiers to the 2007 Intercollegiate Horse Show Association Regional competition.

There is also a breeding program that produces horses used in the undergraduate teaching program.

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