Spring 2020

From head to hoof

Diagnosing head and leg problems can be challenging for veterinarians and risky for horses. Until recently, veterinarians at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine’s Leatherdale Equine Center relied on X-rays, which don’t show the full extent of leg or hoof problems. Doing a head CT scan meant anesthetizing the animal to lay it in the scanner. “Horses can break or fracture a bone when they try to stand up coming out of anesthesia, and those injuries can be catastrophic, even fatal,” says Nicolas Ernst, associate professor of equine surgery, sports medicine, and lameness. 

In August 2019, the U of M installed a standing CT scanner designed specifically for horses, thanks to a gift from Doug and Louise Leatherdale.

A CT scan produces three-dimensional, cross-sectional images—like slices from a loaf of bread—of bone and soft tissue, providing a more precise view than an X-ray. It can show head and neck lesions, tooth and sinus problems, stress fractures and other lower leg injuries, other causes of lameness such as arthritis. Says Ernst: “If I take an X-ray of a foot, I can only get four or five views. When I do a CT, I get 200 to 300 images in all planes.”

To image the  head and neck: The horse stands in a stock and rests its head in a trough. The scanner moves horizontally.

Animals scanned: 87 (as of April)

Largest: A Percheron draft horse

Smallest: A newborn foal

Most unusual: An alpaca

Animals came from: Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, southern Canada

To image the front or hind legs: The horse stands on a pedestal in the center of the unit, and the scanner moves up and down.


“We felt it was important to have the best diagnostics possible. I have horses in this community, and we desperately needed it.” —Louise Leatherdale

“It makes me a better clinician and surgeon. It helps me identify problems before irreversible changes happen.”—Nicolas Ernst