Providing the best in equine medicine

After a mare was given an epidural, the students, residents, and faculty at Penn Vet’s George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals began comparing the size of their hands, searching for the smallest pair.

Their goal was to minimize the discomfort the horse would feel during the removal of a bladder stone: A procedure that in this case required reaching inside the standing animal’s body to locate, grasp, and retract the kiwi-size lump of calcium.

At Penn’s New Bolton Center, this is just part of a regular day’s work.

Located on 678 acres of scenic rural land in Kennett Square, Pa., New Bolton Center provides education, treatment, and scientific research into the welfare of large food, farm, and athletic animals. It is home to one of the largest and most respected equine surgical and treatment facilities in the nation. At the Center, racehorses, show horses, work horses, and pet horses receive routine, emergency, and intensive veterinary care that ranges from sports medicine and reproductive services to neonatal care and cardiac analysis done on a special treadmill.

“It’s not unusual on any given day to see a horse in the hospital with pneumonia, diarrhea, or with an ophthalmologic [eye] problem, or have horses arriving for outpatient evaluation of a lameness, upper respiratory, neurological, or cardiac problem,” says Corinne Sweeney, professor of medicine at Penn Vet and associate dean for New Bolton Center. “With such a broad range of specialists, and a great depth of experience, our clinical team is prepared to treat the simplest to the most complex of veterinary issues.”

The Center’s high-speed treadmill and recovery swimming pool are two unique aspects of the Widener Hospital. The recovery pool is part of a state-of-the-art surgical suite located in the hospital’s C. Mahlon Kline Orthopedic and Rehabilitation Center.

Following surgery, an equine patient is transported to the special pool through the use of a monorail system that lifts it in a sling. Then, the horse is lowered into a special rubber raft that allows the animal’s legs to move in warm water as it emerges from anesthesia (picture a giant version of a swimming pool float for babies). The recovery pool at New Bolton Center, developed by Penn Vet’s Jacques Jenny in the 1970s, was the first of its kind in the world. When the horse becomes fully awake, it is lifted out of the pool and set gently back on its feet, reducing the risk of further injury.

Many of the horses treated at New Bolton Center are equine athletes, and the high-speed treadmill is part of the Center’s Section of Sports Medicine and Imaging. It is an important diagnostic tool that helps veterinarians zero in on what may be causing performance problems while a horse is in motion. The treadmill allows horses to reach speeds up to 35 miles an hour. As the horse runs, veterinarians are able to monitor its cardiac and respiratory systems using sophisticated diagnostic equipment.

Additionally, the Section of Sports Medicine and Imaging specializes in performing pre-purchase examinations on horses for people investing in high-performance animals. Owners can also ask for clinical evaluations of lameness, as well as cardiac, ultrasound, digital radiographic, nuclear scintigraphic, and MRI examinations.

Because breeding is a key aspect of equine husbandry, New Bolton Center also provides reproductive services for horses, including care for mares experiencing at-risk pregnancies and help for stallions with less-than-perfect semen, and breeding behavior difficulties. At the Georgia and Philip Hofmann Research Center for Animal Reproduction, specialists in theriogenology (the study of reproduction in animals) and animal behavior work with stallions and mares to optimize breeding timing and technique. It is one of the few centers in the nation where animal behaviorists work as members of the reproduction team. If needed, the Center also provides help with artificial insemination.

Once a mare becomes pregnant, it will experience an 11-month gestation period. And while most healthy horses go through pregnancy and delivery of a foal with no problems, some develop medical issues that can place their pregnancies at risk.

Widener Hospital’s High-Risk Pregnancy Program provides around-the-clock monitoring of pregnant mares, ultrasound exams, and fetal heart monitoring. As part of the program, specialists remain on hand 24 hours a day to provide any emergency care needed during a mare’s pregnancy and delivery.

If a mare delivers a foal needing emergency care, the newborn is taken directly into the Graham French Neonatal Section of the Connelly Intensive Care Unit (NICU).

Recently two foals were in residence in the NICU. One, born four days earlier, was laying on a twin-size mattress in a private stall, gaining strength after experiencing what is known as a “red bag” birth (similar to placenta previa in humans) that deprived it of oxygen. The foal was having seizures and the NICU specialists were monitoring it around the clock. The other foal was rapidly recovering from a post-natal head tilt that kept it from being able to stand.

The newest addition to the New Bolton campus is the James M. Moran, Jr. Critical Care Center, opened in 2010. Providing an unprecedented level of biosecurity for the hospital’s most critical patients, the new Center adheres to the highest protocols of protection from infection and contamination. Each stall is self-contained, preventing direct contact between patients. A special circulation system ensures each stall is individually ventilated, and each stall is equipped with a camera that allows the medical staff to monitor patients from the Center’s central nursing station. Specialized software enables clinicians to also check on their patients from home.

At the opening of the new building, Penn Vet Dean Joan Hendricks said, “For 125 years, Penn Vet has been at the leading edge of veterinary care and with this new facility we are once again setting a new standard in veterinary clinical medicine.”

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