Taking technology out to pasture

A University of Missouri-Columbia equine veterinarian is using motion-capture technology to diagnose lameness and spinal ataxia, common and significant medical conditions in horses.

Both can lead to loss of limb use or death of the animal, but the new technology might help veterinarians identify the specific problems early enough to seek a treatment.

“The problem with the current motion-capture technology is that you need a laboratory and the equipment is extremely expensive,” said Kevin Keegan, associate professor of veterinary medicine and surgery. “Our new system allows a veterinarian to evaluate and diagnose a horse in the pasture or in the barn.”

Keegan, together with P. Frank Pai, a mechanical engineer at MU, and Yoshiharu Yonezawa at the Hiroshima Institute of Technology in Japan, developed a system that consists of four small motion sensors that are attached to the horse’s head and legs.

The sensors are so small and light that they do not affect the horse’s movement. As the horse moves, the sensors record the movement and relay the data to a portable computer. Later, the data is analyzed and a diagnosis is made.

This technology is unique because diagnosing lameness or spinal ataxia, which is inflammation of the spinal cord, can be very difficult to do subjectively with the naked eye. However, the sensors can detect the small irregularities in the horse’s movement and help a veterinarian make the proper diagnosis.

“It can be especially difficult to diagnose lameness if the problem is intermittent or if it switches sides or changes intensity,” Keegan said. “If the motion-capture technology is attached to the horse, the evaluation is more objective, taking the guesswork out of the equation. This technology may also help veterinarians diagnose lameness or weakness problems in horses that escape the human eye.”

Lameness is the most common medical condition affecting horses, typically resulting in $600 million to $1 billion in losses for the horse industry each year. Spinal ataxia, which can lead to death in the animal, can be caused by several diseases including infection of the spinal cord, malformation of the neck vertebrae, the herpes virus and the West Nile virus.

Keegan’s research has been published in the American Journal of Veterinary Research and the Equine Veterinary Journal.