Advances in CT imaging
"As technology advances, several sites that perform CT scans have gone from a single-slice scanner to the rudimentary helical
CT scanner and on to multi-slice helical scanning," says Sarah Puchalski, DVM, assistant professor in the Department of Surgical
and Radiological Sciences at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. "Whereas before we worked off
a single-slice, now we are capable of working off a 16-slice helical scanner — quite a big jump forward," says Puchalski.
Multi-slice scanning results in better image resolution, and combined with increased software capabilities, produces improved
three-dimensional and surface reconstructions (Photos 2 and 3).
Photos 2 : Three-dimensional reconstruction images can be rotated in any direction to provide surgeons with anatomical landmarks
to minimize surgery time.
There are image-viewing and technique advances as well. "Although CTA was probably the big jump forward as far as techniques
go, we are improving our abilities with contrast use in other ways," says Puchalski. "For example, arthrography uses contrast
material in the joint to evaluate cartilage thickness."
Photos 3 : Three-dimensional reconstruction images can be rotated in any direction to provide surgeons with anatomical landmarks
to minimize surgery time.
A clinic in the Netherlands now has the ability to scan equine stifles, diagnosing cruciate ligament injuries for which there
has been no consistent technique until now. "That clinic is pushing the envelop on stifle arthrography, and we're hoping to
have that capability soon at UC-Davis," Puchalski says.
Today, CT scanners are popping up all over the place. There is greater availability and accessibility for veterinarians and
horse owners. The availability does vary with region, and within different U.S. regions the capabilities and equipment are
different. In the Northeast, several different institutions have CT units available, including a couple of private practices.
There are CT units at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, North Carolina State University, the University
of Florida, Auburn University, Mississippi State University and Michigan State University. While not all of these units are
set up for scanning horses, several of the university practices that have CT available also have special tables to allow for
Adapting technology for the needs of the equine patient has been an impediment. "About 10 years ago, there were 'portable'
CT scanners that could go into operating rooms, but they sort of fell out of vogue," says Puchalski. Now, that concept is
being revisited. Currently, several equine practices are using portable "small-bore" scanners. Instead of having the horse
move through the center of the CT gantry, the CT moves over the top of the leg. This is being used at the New Bolton Center
and is especially valuable for preoperative planning of fracture repair.
These smaller units are a good alternative for private practices. They are relatively inexpensive and do not require a special
table. Their only limitation is that they cannot be used to evaluate a horse's head.
Evaluating the equine limb
The primary use of CTA in today's equine practice is for tendon injury or foot lameness. "In addition to diagnostics, we are
now performing CT-guided injections of treatment materials directly into the foot," says Puchalski. "This technique is especially
useful for lesions that occur in the hoof capsule. However, there is definitely controversy over what to inject. Platelet-rich
plasma, stem cells and biological agents that are thought to speed healing are being explored."
The portable machine at New Bolton Center is based in the surgery suite. Tom Schaer, VMD, runs the research laboratory there
and does a lot of surgical research, using the CT unit for spinal surgery in small ruminants (sheep) and pigs.
"In the same building, we do our major equine orthopedic surgeries, and that is where I find it really exciting," says Dean
Richardson, DVM, Dipl. ACVS. The equine surgical department uses this small CT unit to perform less invasive and more accurate
fracture fixations on many types of lower-limb fractures. For example, they have repaired several coffin bone fractures that
would have been much more difficult without the use of CT. As Richardson notes, "Because the CT is right there in the operating
room, we can do intraoperative imaging to figure out precisely where to direct screws."
Other applications have included third tarsal bone slab fracture repair. "You can get the position of the screw absolutely
perfect using CT in this type of fracture because you can define the real limits of the fracture — an impossibility with standard
radiographs," says Richardson. "We are using CT to assist with navicular bone fractures, coffin joint arthrodesis, complex
phalangeal fractures, etc., which would all be very difficult to do without this technology. It is pretty exciting to be able
to add CT to other intraoperative imaging in order to further improve our fixations. I can wheel it into the operating room
and scan a leg in 60 seconds! It takes some of the smarts out of fracture repair. I call it 'cheating.'"
Richardson notes, however, that at New Bolton Center a bigger unit is needed to be able to scan the upper limb, as well as
for use on the skull of an adult horse.
Evaluating the equine head
Besides evaluation of the distal limb in horses, CT scans are now being used to assist in the diagnosis and treatment of soft
tissue and bone abnormalities affecting the head. "We have used CT scans on horses with neoplasia of the head and mandibular
disease," Puchalski says. "This is a very common and good use of CT."
Anthony Pease, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVR, assistant professor of radiology and section chief of diagnostic imaging at Michigan State
University's College of Veterinary Medicine, is involved in the continued development and use of CT for equine injuries and
diseases of the head.
"Nowadays, there are two different methods that we can use for head CT in the standing horse," says Pease. "The first is a
technique in which we have a sedated horse move through the CT scanner. That's basically what they're doing in Europe right
now. The second is a process being used in Wisconsin in which they are creating the first standing CT scanner designed for
imaging the equine head."
CT is ideal for evaluating bones of the head, avoiding the superimposition that is seen on a standard radiograph. A CT scan
of the equine head produces cross-sectional images with a large amount of dental, sinus, brain and soft tissue detail.
Michigan State University just finished a project in which they looked at using CT scanning for horses with Cushing's disease.
For this study, CT was used to identify pituitary enlargement in horses with Cushing's disease (Photo 4). "We could actually
see the lesions very easily with the use of contrast material," says Pease. "It was the first study to measure the average
size of an abnormal pituitary gland in the horse. All of the horses with Cushing's actually had large pituitary glands." Each
scan was completed in about 10 minutes, which allowed the horses to be treated and rechecked later to monitor the size of
the pituitary gland. "CT offers a way to monitor this disease noninvasively," Pease notes.
Photo 4: A CT image of the brain of a horse with Cushing's disease showing the large pituitary gland after contrast medium
Another reason to evaluate the equine head is in cases of trauma. With traditional radiography, diagnosis and treatment in
these patients can be challenging. "The last thing that a veterinarian wants is to have a horse with a head injury under anesthesia
for a long period of time. With advances in CT software, we can scan a horse's head, perform 3-D reconstructions and have
all the information to the surgeons before they get the horse into surgery," Pease says. In these cases, MRI may provide more
information, but this modality takes up to an hour. CT produces results much faster, which can make all the difference in
cases of head trauma. That is not to say that the information gleaned from head CT is nondiagnostic.
"I've scanned horses with head trauma, tooth root abscesses and fractures of the jaw, and we have been able to identify many
tumors, abscesses and infections. We're able to get a large amount of information from CT," says Pease.
While there are still daunting challenges posed by the equine patient, the future of CT in equine veterinary practice looks
bright, with new applications for this imaging tool yet to be discovered.
Kane is a Seattle author, researcher and consultant in animal nutrition, physiology and veterinary medicine, with a background
in horses, pets and livestock.
For a complete list of articles by Dr. Kane, visit