Equine surgeons are vets with unique role

The average horse owner may never meet an equine surgeon, but it is good to know they are out there should a need arise.

In Canada, these highly skilled veterinarians practice at only a handful of equine specialty clinics and veterinary schools.

It takes a unique blend of commitment, tenacity and fine motor skills for a veterinarian to specialize in surgery. Like the horses they sometimes treat, these individuals have to clear a number of hurdles. First, after at least two years of university course work, they have to be accepted into competitive veterinary degree programs. After graduation, most spend a year internship at either a veterinary clinic that specializes in horses or at a veterinary school. Then, they have to compete for the few equine surgery residencies available in North America.

After three years of rigorous training, they write the American College of Veterinary Surgeons qualifying examination. Along the way, they acquire a wealth of knowledge by spending many hours treating and studying horse-related diseases and lameness. In addition to being horse-wise, the surgeons I know tend to have vast collections of scrubs while maintaining polished hands by the five minute pre-surgical scrub-ins.

One of these equine surgeons is Dr. Conrad Wilgenbusch, a classmate of mine from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon. He persevered through the rigorous process and now works as an associate veterinarian and surgeon at Delaney Veterinary Services in Sherwood Park, Alta.

He was attracted to specializing in performance horse sports medicine through his experience as a cow-horse competitor and owner.

“In sports medicine, we are not necessarily treating them for quality of life or overall general preventive health care; we desire to have them perform at their peak potential,” he said.

As specialists, equine surgeons like Wilgenbusch have a narrow focus on horse health and can draw on this expertise and experience in their diagnosis and treatment decisions.

“We see sick, lame horses eight to 10 hours a day, every day,” he said.

They also diagnose a disease and perform the surgery themselves, another key reason he chose to pursue this field.

“My attraction to lameness was that horses are of no use to their owners if they are not sound. I pursued surgery to complete the job and follow cases through to the end. I wanted to be able to do surgery when needed,” said Wilgenbusch.

In reality, equine surgeons serve the horses they treat, the people who own them and also fellow veterinarians.

Not every vet can learn the skills to perform a colic surgery, nor can every vet clinic be equipped with a surgery suite large enough to fit a 1,000 pound horse. Veterinarians who may not see many horses in their typical practice can refer complicated or serious cases to these specialists.

Equine surgeons are also up-to-date on the latest treatment options including stem cell therapy, which may offer a glimmer of hope for lame horses that were previously untreatable.

Unlike a traditional veterinary clinic, equine hospitals function in unique ways that bear some resemblance to human hospitals, but instead of beds, veterinarians and support staff visit the stalls of hospitalized horses in “stall-side rounds” each morning.

This allows everyone to provide input into the treatment and management of the cases.

Although no two days are the same for an equine surgeon, Wilgenbusch spends most of his time diagnosing and treating lame performance horses. On a particularly industrious day, he may see 18 cases. Emergencies can happen any time during the day or night and these are usually colicing horses. In addition to emergencies, he also performs an average of two routine surgeries a week, most often searching the abdomen of a cryptorchid colt to find and remove the retained testicle.

All told, these horse heroes play an important role. With the continuing popularity of horses and their related competitions and activities, it is likely that demand for equine surgeons in Western Canada will continue to grow.

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