PET Scan Research Could Improve Racehorse Safety, Welfare

A standing equine PET scanner will soon be available at Santa Anita Park. Veterinarians and researchers hope it will ultimately help identify subtle pre-existing bone changes before they lead to catastrophic injuries.

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pet scan for racehorses
Positron emission tomography uses a small dose of radioactivity to detect changes in bone or soft tissue at the microscopic level. | Photo: Courtesy Dr. Mathieu Spriet

A significant advance in veterinary research is coming to the racetrack in the form of a standing equine PET (positron emission tomography) scanner. The machine will soon be available at Santa Anita Park, in Arcadia, California, marking a major milestone in the battle against racetrack injuries.

In the wake of a difficult winter for Southern California horse racing, the racing community has been looking for ways to improve equine athlete safety. The approach to improving safety is multifactorial and takes into consideration track conditions, medication use, training regimens, and early injury detection. Research led by Susan Stover, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, director of the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), JD Wheat Veterinary Orthopedic Research Laboratory has shown that catastrophic injuries in racehorses are associated with subtle, pre-existing bone changes, particularly in the fetlock joint. The challenge has been identifying these changes early enough to prevent serious injuries.

The UC Davis imaging group has been looking for a solution to difficulties with early injury detection for several few years. What started in 2013 as a purely academic discussion between PET engineer Ramsey Badawi, MS, PhD, and equine radiologist Mathieu Spriet, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVR, ECVDI, has led to a real-world application of the most powerful system to detect bone injuries in racehorses. Veterinarians and researchers will use the new PET scanner to identify patterns of stress remodeling in the fetlock and assess how they are affected by training and track conditions. The long-term goal is to use the technique as a screening tool to identify horses at risk of catastrophic breakdowns

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