Blood Test Could Prevent 5,000 Horse Deaths
Researchers at Colorado State University are working to develop a blood test that could detect minor injuries in horses, and prevent potential future collapses on running tracks and pastures alike. (Pet Pulse Photo by John Parker)
FORT COLLINS, Colo. -- While horse racing collapses and deaths are often seemingly unprecedented, the medical mishaps are not isolated occurrences, but rather, a dramatic signifier of an ongoing problem.
Colorado State University in Fort Collins is now working to identify microscopic injuries that normally go undetected, but could foreshadow larger issues down the road.
The findings could save lives, and help prevent cases like that of Eight Bells, a filly in the Kentucky Derby who collapsed from fractured front ankles and was subsequently euthanized during a race last May.
The research could also eventually help counter the high number of race horses that die each year. A survey by the Associated Press shows that as many as 5,000 racing horses have died since 2003. Many of those deaths came when the horses were put down after suffering devastating injuries.
"The more competitive the horse, the more likely they are of causing themselves damage," said Dr. Wayne McIlwraith, the director of CSU's Equine Orthropaedic Research Center.
Dr. McIlwraith is developing the blood test that would spot potential bone problems so minimal that they are almost undetectable, even with an X-ray.
"We know that all fractures start as micro-damage," McIlwraith said. "So if you can detect that micro-damage before, then you can be in the situation to keep a fracture from happening."
Bone fractures in thoroughbreds and racing quarter horses occur most frequently in the animal's front legs. Equine veterinarians often see small bone chips in knees and ankles, signs of repetitive trauma from extensive training and competition.
"I know it's a very simplistic comparison, but it's a bit like a motorcar," McIlwraith said. "The more miles you put on, the more chances you have of something to happen."
Hidden bone damage can appear in all breeds, including cutting horses. While competing in races, cutting horses make sharp turns and quick stops when working with cattle.The intense exertion can eventually take its toll on the animals.
The blood test is designed to detect in the very early stages whether cartilage or bone is beginning to break down. The test is the same basic medical technology being used in humans to spot osteoarthritis.
"Every horse should be able to get that test," Dr. McIlwraith said.
Even Zip, an eight-year-old western show horse. He belongs to the Cook family, Colorado quarter horse breeders who run Royal Vista Equine, a breeding facility in Fort Collins. Zip's health is just as important as their racers', the family says.
"We usually have four to six at the track at any one time, and some of those are partnership horses," said Dr. Jill Cook, Royal Vista Equine's owner. "We have them running all across the country, in California, New Mexico and Texas."
One of Royal Vista's greatest successes is Wave Carver, a world champion quarter horse, who won more than a million dollars before retiring several years ago. He now spends his time siring potential champions in Oklahoma.
Dr. Cook, who is also a veterinarian, always keeps an eye out on all of their horses for potential injuries, he says. But it is sometimes challenging to determine a sore muscle from a potentially much more severe injury.
"A lot of times, they're [injuries] so subtle, that we're not picking up on those things at all," Dr. Cook said.
And that is why the blood test is encouraging for horse owners and breeders alike. When there are no outward signs of pain, the test can catch problems that even the horse itself can't feel.
"I think it's critical that we find better ways to pick up these small injuries before they become larger injuries," Dr. Cook said.
For many equine athletes, the test could be a lifesaver.
Research on the blood test is progressing at CSU. The tests presently hold an 80 percent success rate in detecting bone damage, and Dr. McIlwraith and his team hope that within two years, they will be available to any horse that needs it.
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