Research

The Center for Equine Health has access to the largest group of equine specialists and researchers available anywhere.  Our expertise spans the breadth of clinical and basic science disciplines that apply to the horse.  Although all health and performance problems qualify for study, our research priorities currently focus on the areas listed below.

  • Regenerative medicine
  • Genetic basis of disease
  • Equine infectious diseases
  • Orthopedics and lameness
  • Colic prevention and treatment
  • Laminitis
  • Equine reproduction
  • Neonatology and foal diseases
  • Equine welfare
  • Anesthetic and medication safety
  • Neurology
  • Imaging

Research funding is always needed.  If there is a particular area of interest to you and your horse and you would like to help support research in that area, please contact Dr. Claudia Sonder at (530)752-6433 or csonder@ucdavis.edu.

UC Davis Acquires World's First Equine PET Scanner

UC Davis' new portable PET scanner is the first of its kind to be used to image horses.

The UC Davis veterinary hospital recently acquired a positron emission tomography (PET) scanner, becoming the first veterinary facility in the world to utilize the imaging technology for equine patients. In association with the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine’s Center for Equine Health (CEH), the hospital will launch use of the PET scanner in the summer of 2016. The unit has been acquired for research and clinical studies on lameness diagnosis in horses. 



While most other imaging techniques provide “morphological” information (identifying changes in size, shape or density of structures), PET is a “functional” imaging technique, observing activity at the molecular level – detecting changes in the tissue before the size or shape is modified. Once morphological changes have occurred, PET can tell whether the changes are still active or not.



 PET capabilities for equine imaging include:

  • identified small areas of bone remodeling at the attachment of tendons or ligaments missed with other modalities

  • 
showed increased activity in bone adjacent to joints, where degenerative changes are known to occur, before morphological changes were present


  • revealed increased activity in some joint fragments whereas other joint fragments appeared quiet

  • 
demonstrated that some areas of bone proliferation were active, whereas others were quiescent.



The PET demonstrates an active lesion of the navicular bone (white arrows) as well as abnormal uptake in the bone adjacent to the pastern joint (black arrow). This second lesion was not seen on the CT, but suggests early degenerative changes that could lead to the development of a bone cyst.

In order to confirm these findings and further define the role of PET in lameness imaging, UC Davis will launch a clinical trial in the fall of 2016. Horses likely to benefit from enrollment in the trial are:


  • horses for which other advanced imaging modalities (MRI, CT or nuclear scintigraphy) have failed to identify the cause of the lameness

  • 
horses for which the results of other imaging modalities are confusing due to the presence of multiple abnormalities or equivocal findings
 


PET has also shown great promises in evaluating soft tissue lesions, in particular regarding laminitis and tendon lesions. Research studies gathering further information in these specific areas will commence shortly at UC Davis. As more data becomes available, additional clinical trials will likely develop. 

 Read more here.

Regenerative Medicine

Photo of horse receiving stem cell injection

Dr. Larry Galuppo treats a horse with stem cells derived from the patient's own bone marrow.

The regenerative medicine program at UC Davis was established in 2007 and has been evolving rapidly.  The initial emphasis of the program was to target the potential of mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) for orthopedic repair in horses, including bone healing and tendon and ligament repair.  Since that time, research and clinical teams have been developed in both equine and small animal medicine working in the following areas:

Tissue engineering - heart valve replacement; small vessel repair; cartilage repair

Liver disease - tracking stem cells to the liver; evaluating stem cells for the treatment of portosystemic shunt in dogs

Oral disease - mandibular (jaw) repair and the treatment of chronic, severe oral inflammatory diseases in cats

Spinal cord injury - a unique "neural" stem cell derived from canine skin is isolated, expanded and used to treat dogs with spinal cord injury

Ophthalmic disease - inflammatory and immune-medicated eye diseases in dogs and horses

Gastrointestinal disease - inflammatory bowel disease in dogs

Wound healing - MSCs embedded in matrix to augment wound healing in horses

Laminitis - MSCs increase blood flow and decrease inflammation.  These qualities constitute a promising therapy for diseases such as laminitis.  Studies are needed to determine what type of stem cells are best for treating laminitis, how best to administer thte cells, and how they heal this unique tissue.

Infectious, inflammatory and immune-mediated diseases in horses - MSCs are being investigated for the treatment of sepsis and pulmonary diseases in humans, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Genetic Basis of Disease

Photo genetic analysis in color

Horse DNA profiles viewed on a computer screen at the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory.  DNA analysis is used to compare gene sequences between healthy horses and those affected by disease to identify mutations that might be responsible for the disease.

Genetic studies are conducted to advance our understanding of complex diseases such as:

  • Hereditary equine regional dermal asthenia (HERDA)
  • Neuroaxonal dystrophy/equine degenerative myeloencephalopathy (NAD/EDM)
  • Equine cerebellar abiotraphy (CA)
  • Chronic progressive lymphedema (CPL)
  • Early onset melanoma in gray horses

Some of these diseases manifest at an early age and progress throughout the horse's life.  Others, like HERDA and CPL, may not be revealed until later.  In order to successfully manage as well as prevent these diseases, it is crucial to characterize the disease, investigate pathogenic mechanisms and identify early diagnotic tools.

Equine Infectious Diseases

Photo of horse traveling by plane

Horses travel long distances to compete in a single event.  The speed and volume of travel today, particularly that afforded by air, create abundant opportunities for widespread disease transmission.

Infectious communicable diseases pose one of the major threats to worldwide health in the 21st century.  Currently, the capacity of many infectious organisms to adapt and mutate far exceeds the medical community's ability to respond with new strategies for control.  The resilience of these pathogenic microbes, combined with the rapidity with which humans and horses currently circumvent the globe, present today's biomedical scientists with a most difficult challenge.

The Bernice Barbour Communicable Disease Laboratory at UC Davis investigates pathogens and their interactions with hosts and their environment.  Researchers in this lab come from varying disciplines to study the range of mechanisms used by microbes to cause disease in an effort to implement new and more effective methods of control.

Orthopedics and Lameness

Photo: Chiropractic treatment of a horse

Dr. Sarah le Jeune provides a horse with a chiropractic adjustment of the lumbar spine.  Restrictions in the lumbar spine are common in horses and can result in back pain, girthiness and loss of performance.

Like human athletes, performance horses suffer from a wide variety of injuries that are unique to their particular discipline.  UC Davis researchers are working to advance diagnostic and therapeutic options for performance horses to minimize injury and maximize performance and longevity.  Areas of research include:

  • Scientific validation of complementary medicine

  • Use of objective lameness assessment to augment lameness detection

  • Advanced imaging techniques to improve injury detection and early intervention

  • Evaluation of the effect of arena footing on suspensory apparatus strain

  • Identification of common areas of joint stress and response to medication

  • Evaluation of new methods for fracture repair and bone stabilization

Silicate-Associated Osteoporosis

Photo of horse with silicate-associated osteoporosis

Horses with advanced stages of SAO usually have a marked swayback that is characteristic of the disease.

Horses are uniquely susceptible to an osteoporotic condition that is coupled with respiratory silicosis.  The combination of the bone and respiratory disease is called silicate-associated osteoporosis (SAO), or bone fragility syndrome.  Equine respiratory silicosis is similar to the human form that is known as an occupational hazard of miners.  In horses, silicosis develops from inhalation of dust derived from soils with high silicate contents, particularly in the Monterey, Carmel, Napa, and Sonoma regions.  Once in the lungs, the crystals cannot be cleared and cause lifelong disease in horses and people.  To our knowledge, SAO does not occur in people.  In addition to the lung problem, horses develop severe osteoporosis that leads to debilitating and progressive deformities and fractures.  We are working with veterinarians from affected regions to increase our understanding of this devastating disease.

Colic Prevention and Treatment

Photo Dr. Jorge Nieto and colic team

Dr. Jorge Nieto (left) and Dr. Albert Sole (second from left) insert an endoscope through a sedated horse's nostril and down the esophagus into the stomach for an examination, while animal technician Gabriel Gil (right) holds and soothes the horse.

While significant advances have been made in abdominal surgery, postoperative treatment and intensive care for horses over the past 20 years, colic is still considered the most common cause of death in adult horses and accounts for a large proportion of emergencies for horse owners and veterinarians.  However, advances in colic surgery and postoperative management have improved the survival of horses  with strangulating obnstructions from 50% to 80%.

The Comparative Gastrointestinal Laboratory at UC Davis has been one of the leading research groups to improve the survival of horses with colic.  Our lab has published over 100 publications in the areas of gastric ulceration, diagnosis of horses with colic that require surgery, prevention of ischemic reperfusion injuries, medications to increase gastrointestinal motility, and new surgical techniques.

Laminitis

Photo of Dr. Alonso Guedes and horse who recovered from laminitis

Dr. Alonso Guedes and Hulahalla, who made a remarkable recovery from laminitis after treatment with the experimental compound t-TUCB.  After only four days of treatment, veterinarians saw great improvements in her demeanor, blood pressure, and pain levels. Hulahalla had a complete recovery and has been laminitis-free for the past year and a half!

Hoof injuries can be devastating for horses that develop laminitis, an inflammation of the support structures of the hoof.  Since these hooves support upwards of 1,000 pounds and horses cannot be on "bed rest", a nail injury can become catastrophic.  Laminitis claims about 75% of its victims, and there is much about the disease that veterinarians still do not understand.

Recently, the Center for Equine Health helped fund a study that resulted in the successful use of the sEH inhibitor t-TUCB, as an analgesic adjunct in a horse with laminitis that was not responding to NSAIDs and gabapentin therapy.  A remarkable reduction in pain scores occurred after pharmacological inhibition of sEH with t-TUCB.  Further investigations are underway to test this and other forms of treatment and to better understand the underlying cellular factors associated with laminitis.

Studies are currently being planned to investigate the underlying cellular changes that precede laminitis, with the goal of development better preventive, diagnostic and therapeutic options for this disease.

Equine Reproduction

Photo: Mare and foal

The Equine Reproduction Service has pioneered much of the research that has enhanced assisted reproduction options and treatment of reproductive disorders.  An investment in future knowledge options will go a long way toward improving reproductive outcomes in horses.

UC Davis has a long and productive history of advancing knowledge in equine reproduction:

  • Fertility problems in mares and stallions
  • Assisted reproduction
  • Embryo transfer
  • Transvaginal follicular aspiration
  • High-risk pregnancy management
  • Hormonal Profiles of pregnancy and the role of progesterone
  • Management of uterine infection

Neonatology and Foal Diseases

Photo: Neonatal foal in NICU

Sick newborns are very critical and if not treated early can have severe complications and high mortality.  Our hospital's highly trained team, led by a board-certified critical care specialist, can handle the most complicated cases.

UC Davis has led the nation in neonatal medicine and care.  Recent research funded by the Center for Equine Health includes a study on dummy foal syndrome and a study of the cerebrospinal fluid of foals affected with neuroaxonal dystrophy/equine degenerative myeloencephalopathy, a neurological disorder that affects foals at 4 to 6 months of age.  Further studies in each of these areas are needed.

Studies have also been completed to evaluate safe and effective doses for chloramphenicol, a commonly used broad-spectrum antibiotic, in foals and to establish normal triglyceride levels.  This work advances the evaluation and treatment of neonatal foals presenting to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

This critical area is underfunded at this time and donations to support needed research could make a difference to the health and well-being of foals.

Equine Welfare

Photo of horse escaping wildfires

Many people cannot imagine leaving their animals behind in a natural disaster but haven't included the necessary preparations to evacuate them in their own emergency plans.  UC Davis has created training modules and curriculum for first responders, emergency planners, veterinarians, and animal owners to improve the care of animals in disasters.

The Center for Equine Health has established an endowment for animal rescue and disaster medicine that focuses on developing improved techniques for the rescue of large animals during natural disasters.  A recent Horse Report (Fall 2014) provides a template for communities to organize and integrate with their local and state Office of Emergency Services in the event of a natural disaster so that horses and other large animals are included in disaster plans.

Other resource materials that have been created and made available to the public include:

  • Guidelines for use by animal control officers to assist in the assessment of neglected horses
  • Guidelines for establishing horse sanctuaries and rescue facilities to ensure the humane care and treatment of animals

The fund also supports research into various medical conditions of the animals and the development of improved treatment regimens. 

Anesthetic and Medication Safety

Photo: Surgery on a horse

UC Davis continues to study equine anesthetic protocols with the goal of improving the safety of equine general anesthesia.

UC Davis researchers are working to improve medication use and safety in horses and evaluate anesthetic combinations that enhance the quality of recovery from anesthesia.  This work advances our understanding of pharmacology and opens new avenues for treatment and prevention of disease.

Current studies have increased our understanding about safer inhalant anesthetics for equine surgeries, and projects are underway to investigate improved methods for standing sedation.  Other work in this area supports the Kenneth L. Maddy Equine Analytical Chemistry Laboratory to establish drug thresholds and monitor medication use.

Neurology

Photo of horse on cover of NAD/EDM Horse Report

Neurological abnormalities associated with neuroaxonal dystrophy or equine degenerative myeloencephalopathy can be subtle and may be missed for years unless the horse is specifically examined for neurological disease. Mild cases may present with performance-related issues, where the horse is just not performing up to the standard expected for its breeding and training.

Research is being conducted in the various conditions that produce neurologic impairment in horses:

  • Improving the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of EPM (equine protozoal myeloencephalitis)
  • Managing cervical degenerative joint disease
  • Advancing our understanding of the neurological form of equine herpesvirus-1
  • Continuing studies on neuroaxonal dystrophy/equine degenerative myeloencephalopathy (NAD/EDM)

Imaging

Photo of ultrasound-guided treatment of renal abscess

Clinicians at the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital have developed minimally invasive techniques using ultrasound guidance to treat intra-abdominal abscesses caused by pigeon fever.

Researchers and clinicians collaborate to advance imaging capabilities with the goal of improving the detection of early lesions.  Their work includes:

  • Tracking mesenchymal stem cell distribution following various routes of administration

  • Developing specialized radiographic views to detect occult body lesions and joint abnormalities

  • Using quantitative MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to map fluid changes in soft tissue structures that support the equine limb