Commentary: Diagnostic Laboratories a Key Component of Equine Health

This issue of The Quarterly contains several articles on diseases of horses that run the gamut of conditions. These diseases include an infectious neurologic disease in adult horses that only a few years ago appeared for the first time in this country, a viral infection of mares that causes abortions, and a type of cancer in mares. One constant is the need for rapid and accurate diagnosis. All of these conditions require a thorough and accurate pathologic examination and specific--sometimes elaborate--laboratory testing to achieve an accurate diagnosis.

A pathologic examination of a dead animal can be performed on the farm by a veterinarian, with tissue samples being sent to diagnostic laboratories for further examination and tests. Alternatively, the practitioner may have the horse transported to a veterinary diagnostic laboratory for a complete examination by a trained pathologist. This exam entails a detailed visual examination of the animal with complete dissection and sampling of tissues and possibly body fluids. The pathologist can recognize abnormal changes that may indicate a specific disease process or at least suggest what type of disease may be present. The pathologist is then able to conduct additional tests, including microscopic examination of tissues, to help arrive at a definitive diagnosis. Beyond the obvious importance of knowing why an animal died, the potential threat of exposure or transmission of a disease to other herd members and even to people makes accurate, timely diagnosis paramount.

Many of the conditions discussed in this issue occur as outbreaks, and diagnostic laboratories are on the forefront of emerging disease recognition, outbreak detection, and surveillance. With the constant threat of zoonotic diseases, potential for introduction of foreign animal diseases, and bioterrorism concerns, an advanced, high-quality diagnostic laboratory system is essential.

Unfortunately, in a time of budget cuts and revenue shortfalls, diagnostic laboratories are facing challenges in their efforts to provide rapid and complete service. Never has technology been advancing more rapidly than now, and it offers more rapid, sensitive, and accurate testing and disease diagnosis. However, this technology often requires elaborate and expensive equipment and more highly skilled technical operators.

Furthermore, the scope, role, and importance of diagnostic laboratories are all increasing. As new tests become available and more stringent regulations are placed on animal movement, more demands are being placed on diagnostic laboratories. Their importance must be realized and commitments made to adequately support and staff them. It is unrealistic for the major operational costs of a diagnostic laboratory to be borne solely by its users. Financial support must be viewed as an investment that will pay great dividends. We must recognize that diagnostic laboratories are essential to safeguarding animal health and more by protecting animal industries, food supply, human health, and potentially homeland security.


Dr. Neil M. Williams, 859/253-0571, Livestock Disease Diagnostic Center, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Ky.

This is an excerpt from Equine Disease Quarterly, funded by underwriters at Lloyd's, London, brokers, and their Kentucky agents. More articles from Equine Disease Quarterly ...

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Equine Disease Quarterly

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